Scientists have discovered a new type of  virus in 30,000-year-old permafrost and managed to resurrect it, producing an infection.

In December of last year, we published an article called “Will Climate Change Start the Zombie Apocalypse?”  You can read it in its entirety HERE. In the article, we discussed whether a warmer earth due to climate change might unleash a deadly virus, and kick-start the zombie apocalypse.

Well, researchers from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at Aix-Marseille University in Francemay have taken the first steps to proving that hypothesis to be correct. Yesterday (March 4), the researchers reported that they were successful in extracting a giant virus from a 30,000 year old permafrost core in Siberia, and bring it back to life.  And to prove its virility, they were able to infect an amoeba with it.

The researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

The revival of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus … suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health.

Giant DNA viruses, first discovered just 10 years ago, are so big compared with most other viruses that they are visible under a visible light microscope. Before the new virus was discovered, just two families were known.  This one has traits from both of the two families.

Although this newly discovered Siberian virus is not believed to be dangerous to humans, a similar giant virus discovered in 1992 in a British water cooling tower is believed to be infectious. Study of that virus’s genes indicated that it was related to smallpox.

Many bodies of smallpox victims were buried in icy tombs in Siberia during the smallpox epidemic (that killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide in the 20th Century alone).  It was previously thought that viruses such as smallpox could not survive outside a living host (or long periods frozen).  This was corroborated by scientists excavating corpses in Alaska and Siberia,  none of which contained viable viruses. “No one feels there’s a serious chance that global warming will melt the permafrost and unleash an epidemic,” said Michael Lane, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) smallpox eradication program from 1970 until 1981, when it was declared a success and shut down.

Nevertheless, in 1991 a team of Russian bio-weapons experts in blue respiratory suits entered a wooden vault in the village of Pokhodsk, Siberia, full of 19th century smallpox victims mummified in the permafrost.  The researchers were concerned that the thawing (receding) of the permafrost would also dislodge the smallpox-ridden corpses, and therefore awaken the virus.  Interestingly, the found some of corpses with out heads (see photo below). Though their research was inconclusive, evidence has been mounting to justify their concern regarding receding permafrost.


Some scientists fear that frozen bodies, such as this one uncovered in Siberia, will transmit preserved smallpox virus. Credit: Imre Friedmann

According to projections by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, the uppermost 10 feet of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost may be gone by 2100.

Currently, smallpox is known to be kept at only two locations in the world– one in the U.S. and one in Russia. Both house the virus in bio-safety level four (BSL-4) facilities. This level of safety – the highest possible –requires researchers to wear a positive pressure suit that resembles those worn in space and includes a tethered air supply.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has been petitioning the labs to have all living smallpox virus completely destroyed, but many scientists disagree.

It now appears that that this may actually have been fortuitous.  A real live virus is the most efficient way to study it, should it be necessary to create a vaccination or cure (which is why these deadly viruses are still kept around).  With the thawing of the Arctic set to possibly resurrect ancient forms of long extinct contagions as well as the long frozen dead, we may be only a few mutations away from a real zombie apocalypse.

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