By Paul Goble
Analysts have long speculated that one of the greatest dangers from global warming may be the release from melting permafrost of killer viruses against which today’s humans have no immunity. A team of Russian, French and German scholars confirmed that during research between 2011 and 2016 and have now published their findings.
They have found several viruses that have been frozen in the permafrost in the Russian North for between 27,000 and almost 50,000 years and that, when these viruses are released and defrosted, they have the potential to kill, at least in the case of amoebas they were tested on (biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.11.10.515937v1).
Ancha Baranova, a Russian biologist at George Mason University in the US, says that the viruses that have been found in ice samples are “truly gigantic” and as a result have been christened “pandora viruses,” a reference to the figure from Greek mythology who opened a box and released all the misfortunes into the world (lenta.ru/articles/2022/12/03/merzlota/).
She says that the particular viruses that have been found in melting permafrost up to now are not a direct threat to humans but can inflict harm when the viruses infect amoebas and then the latter infest humans. In that case, they could be extremely dangerous just as bacteria that display a similar pattern.
Having mentioned bacteria, Baranova points out that it is also the case that some bacteria can remain in a passive state in permafrost and then return to life. She gives as an example the case of reindeer who died of Siberian plague several centuries ago that have been encased in ice since then. These are serious threats as well.