– Climate change and global warming could cause dangerous, thousand-year-old viruses to awaken. If this happens, we may find ourselves in a desperate situation, confronting unknown organisms we have no resistance to.
It sounds like a scenario from a doomsday movie, but scientists think it could happen in real life. It has already happened in fact.
It has long been debated whether viruses should be considered life-forms or not. Some scientists have suggested that giant viruses are ancient organisms that capable of completely changing history of our planet.
Throughout history, humans have existed side-by-side with bacteria and viruses, but what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly organisms that we have never encountered before? Would we find a cure in time?
Viruses and bacteria can survive and thrive in very hostile environments for extended periods of time. Some years ago, researchers discovered a prehistoric virus called Mollivirus sibericum in the Siberian permafrost. The same team that discovered Mollivirus sibericum found another 30,000-year-old virus, Pithovirus sibericum, in the same Russian permafrost. Researchers wanted to bring the virus back to life and there were many who objected because of the danger we may be facing once exposed to these unknown organisms. People were cautious and wondered whether it’s really wise? Awakening dead viruses could be like opening the Pandora Box.
In Greek mythology, Pandora’s box was an ancient artifact Pandora. It contained all the evils of the world. Some say it was a jar. Some say it was a box. Whatever it was, it was locked. It came with a note. The note said: “DO NOT OPEN.” Attached to the note was a key. It was all very curious.
You can guess what happened next. It was Pandora whose curiosity got the better of her. One day, she used the key to open the box. As she raised the lid, out flew all the bad things in the world today – envy, sickness, hate, disease. Pandora slammed the lid closed, but it was too late.
Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist from the Structural & Genomic Information Laboratory at the Mediterranean Institute of Microbiology in Marseille, France said it’s possible that particles of these and other unknown viruses lurking in the permafrost “may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses.”
He added, “If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as smallpox that we thought were eradicated.”
In 2016, due to global warming there was a major heatwave in the Siberian tundra in 2016 and the frozen soil began to thaw. The corpse of the reindeer, which had previously been trapped under the permafrost.
The reindeer still contained anthrax and released the infectious disease into the food supply, soil, and water, which were in close proximity to it. Two thousand reindeer that were busy grazing in this area contracted anthrax from the reindeer carcass Scientists also think this led to the death of a12-year-old boy and 20 who then contracted anthrax and to be taken to hospital.
Researchers are now worried that climate change will cause more of these incidents to occur as further ice melts around the globe at an alarming rate. This may not be an isolated incident.
As the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. Now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers.
Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark. Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past,” Jean-Michel Claverie said.
Bacteria also could easily be unleashed thanks to global warming. NASA scientists were able to effectively demonstrate this in 2005 when they took bacteria in Alaska that had been frozen for 32,000 years and revived it. In 2007, scientists managed to extract bacteria from ice in Antarctica that had been frozen for 8 million years and successfully revived it.
Not all bacteria can be revived, but Anthrax is an exception because spores are formed from it, and these spores can survive for extended periods of time. This means that all bacteria that form spores are a risk to humans, and this includes tetanus along with the pathogen that is known to cause botulism, Clostridium botulinum.
Jean-Michel Claverie warns that climate change and global warming could cause ancient viruses from older hominin species like the Denisovans and the Neanderthals to re-emerge again. As these populations of humans once lived in Siberia and the Arctic, Claverie thinks it is certainly conceivable that these viruses could still pose a threat to people today.
“The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be eradicated from the planet is wrong, and gives us a false sense of security. This is why stocks of vaccine should be kept, just in case,“ Claverie said.
Currently we cannot estimate the risk of being infected with deadly unknown viruses, but we must be prepared. “The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be ‘eradicated’ from the planet is wrong, and gives us a false sense of security,” Claverie said. “This is why stocks of vaccine should be kept, just in case.”
But what if we don’t have the proper vaccine? How can we produce proper vaccine if we don’t know what kind of virus or bacteria we will be confronted with?