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Business News/ News / World/  After Covid, is Zombie Virus threat looming? Experts say, 'our immune defence not sufficient'
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After Covid, is Zombie Virus threat looming? Experts say, 'our immune defence not sufficient'

If there is a virus hidden in the permafrost that we have not been in contact with for thousands of years, it might be that our immune defense is not sufficient, expert cited

Permafrost is the permanently frozen layer of soil lying beneath the ground for more than two years, covering around 15 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. (AP)Premium
Permafrost is the permanently frozen layer of soil lying beneath the ground for more than two years, covering around 15 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. (AP)

The fear around Zombie virus might get real. The thawing of the permafrost in the Siberian Arctic due to climate change and global warming could unleash ancient viruses that have been lying dormant for millions of years in the frozen earth. While this may sound like a science fiction scenario, researchers have already resurrected several viruses from permafrost dating back more than 48,000 years, proving that prehistorical viruses can remain infectious. Noting that our immune system might not be adept to handle these viruses, an expert cited, “It is correct to have respect for the situation and be proactive and not just reactive. And the way to fight fear is to have knowledge."

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is the permanently frozen layer of soil lying beneath the ground for more than two years, covering around 15 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. The cold environment devoid of oxygen and light provides ideal conditions for the preservation of cellular structures and DNA, making it a good storage medium for ancient microbes.

What are Zombie viruses? 

Some microbes in permafrost can go into an inactive state called “cryptobiosis", allowing them to come alive in the right conditions, including when permafrost thaws. These microbes, dubbed "zombie viruses" by researchers, are a public health threat as Arctic temperatures are warming up to four times faster than the rest of the planet, causing permafrost to thaw.

French researcher Jean-Michel Claverie has been studying zombie viruses and has successfully revived viruses from permafrost that target only amoebas. Claverie and his team have isolated several strains of virus from permafrost taken from seven different places in Siberia, and showed that they could each infect cultured amoeba cells, a CNN article cited. 

Can Zombie viruses become a threat for human? 

While the risk of human exposure to ancient viruses is currently low due to the sparse population in the Arctic, the threat is bound to increase as permafrost thawing keeps accelerating. The influenza strain responsible for the 1918 pandemic was found preserved in permafrost, as was smallpox DNA in 300-year-old mummies from Siberia. Thawing permafrost was also linked to a massive anthrax outbreak in Russia in 2016.

The immune systems of humans may not be adept at handling pathogens from the past, and antibiotic-resistance genes have been found in permafrost. Therefore, Birgitta Evengård, professor emerita at Umea University’s Department of Clinical Microbiology in Sweden, said there should be better surveillance of the risk posed by potential pathogens in thawing permafrost, but warned against an alarmist approach.

“You must remember our immune defense has been developed in close contact with microbiological surroundings," said Evengård, who is part of the CLINF Nordic Centre of Excellence, a group that investigates the effects of climate change on the prevalence of infectious diseases in humans and animals in northern regions.

“If there is a virus hidden in the permafrost that we have not been in contact with for thousands of years, it might be that our immune defense is not sufficient," she said. 

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Published: 09 Mar 2023, 10:21 PM IST
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