Scientists discover more and more new “zombie viruses”

(ORDO NEWS) — An international team of researchers has discovered several viruses in permafrost that are tens of thousands of years old. Viruses managed to “resurrect” in the laboratory and decipher their genome. The team included French, German and Russian scientists.

Melting permafrost caused by climate change could lead to the awakening of a huge number of ancient viruses. This was reported by a group of European researchers who said that they were able to detect 13 previously unknown pathogens that were previously imprisoned in frozen soil in the vast expanses of Russian Siberia.

Scientists have discovered one virus that, according to them, has been in the soil under the lake for more than 48.5 thousand years. And they pointed to the potential new danger that a warming planet brings with it – the so-called “zombie viruses”.

In 2015, the same group of scientists from France, Russia and Germany extracted ancient viruses from permafrost and published their findings.

The concentration of new viruses indicates that there are likely to be many more such pathogens in the tundra than previously thought, as the scientists pointed out in their preliminary publication on the BioRxiv website, where many scientists post their research before publishing it in scientific journals. magazines.

“Every time we start looking, we find a virus,” said Jean-Michel Claverie, co-author of the study and emeritus professor of virology at Aix-Marseille University in France. “We know in advance that whenever we went to look for viruses, pathogens in the permafrost, we will definitely find them.”

While the viruses the scientists found were only infectious to amoebas, they say there is a risk that other viruses, trapped in the permafrost for millions of years, could spread to animals or humans.

Virologists who were not involved in the study believe that the likelihood of new pandemics, the source of which can be viruses from the Siberian permafrost, is one of the last places on the list of current public health threats.

Most of the new—that is, ancient—viruses are harmless, they say, and those that can still survive thousands of years of deep freeze typically do not fall into the category of coronaviruses and other contagious pandemic-causing viruses.

So far, the results of a study by European scientists have not been peer-reviewed. But independent virologists say that their findings sound convincing enough and that they used methods in their study that have already proven to be reliable.

The risks posed by dormant viruses in the Arctic need to be monitored, several scientists say. Smallpox, for example, has a genetic structure that can withstand prolonged freezing, and if people suddenly stumble upon the thawed remains of smallpox patients, there is a chance that they can become infected.

Other groups of viruses, such as the coronaviruses that cause Covid-19, are more fragile and less likely to survive a deep freeze.

“There is a big natural freezer in nature – the Siberian permafrost,” said Paulo Verardi, virologist and chair of the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Connecticut. “And that can be a little worrying, especially if the pathogens are frozen inside animals or humans.”

But, according to him, “if you do a risk analysis, you will understand that the danger is extremely insignificant.” “Right now we have much more important things to worry about,” he added.

As part of their latest study, this group of European scientists took samples from several locations in Siberia over several years starting in 2015. The viruses they discovered – unusually large viruses that infect amoeba – remained active thousands, and in some cases even tens of thousands of years ago.

Some of the samples were found in soil or riverbeds, although one of the amoeba viruses was found in the frozen remains of the intestines of a Siberian wolf that lived at least 27,000 years ago.

Scientists used amoebas as “virus bait” because they thought it would be a good way to look for viruses without the risk of them spreading to animals or humans. However, they made a reservation that this does not mean at all that there are no such viruses in the tundra.

Siberia is warming very quickly – about four times faster than the global average. Over the past few years, she has constantly suffered from forest fires and abnormally high temperatures – up to 37 degrees Celsius. And its permafrost—soil that remains frozen even in summer—is rapidly thawing.

This means that micro-organisms that have been trapped in the permafrost for thousands of years are now thawing and resurfacing.

People are more likely to stumble upon the corpses of ancient humans or animals, scientists say, especially in Russia, whose far north is more densely populated than arctic regions elsewhere. Scientists collected some of the samples in Yakutsk, the regional center and one of the fastest growing cities in Russia.

Thawing permafrost has previously been blamed for outbreaks of infectious diseases. In 2016, an anthrax outbreak broke out in a remote Siberian village after people discovered the remains of a deer that had lain there for 75 years in melted soil nearby. But anthrax is not a virus, it is found not only in Siberia, and it is unlikely to cause large-scale pandemics.

Many virologists say they are more concerned about the viruses that are currently circulating among humans than the risk of awakening ancient viruses resting in permafrost.

New microbes are constantly emerging, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with the Washington Post in 2015, when the first results of a study of viruses from permafrost were published.

“These are the characteristics of our planet and our existence,” he continued. “The discovery of new viruses in permafrost is not much different from all this. The significance of this phenomenon will depend on a number of unlikely events: a virus from permafrost must be able to infect people, it must cause disease, it must be able to spread effectively from person to person. All this can happen, but it is extremely unlikely.”

Virologists say that a much more serious problem is modern viruses that can infect people and lead to the development of diseases that are very difficult to control. We are talking about pathogens such as the Ebola virus, cholera, dengue fever and even the common flu.

Viruses that cause disease in humans are unlikely to survive the multiple freeze-thaw cycles that occur in the top layer of permafrost. And, according to experts, a much more serious problem will be the spread of mosquitoes and ticks associated with global warming, since these insects are carriers of many dangerous diseases.

The ancient virus “carries a low risk compared to the huge number of viruses that circulate among vertebrates around the world, which have already shown themselves to be a really serious threat in the past and which can provoke similar events in the future, because we have until there are still no mechanisms to predict this ahead of time,” said Colin Parrish, a virologist at Cornell University and president of the American Society of Virology.


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