Giant virus found under melting permafrost, more may come

Scientists warn that long dormant and frozen viruses and bacteria are being released due to climate change and invasive resource exploration.


A veterinarian checks reindeer for deadly anthrax outside Yar-Sale town in the Siberian Peninsula

Updated Aug 12, 2016

Climate change is expected to bring more than just extreme weather. Deep below the frozen tundra, encased in ice, scientists warn that long dormant viruses and bacteria have already been released.

Woken from millennia-old hibernation, their suspended animation is being disturbed by rising temperatures and the exploration for resources. These so called “Zombie Viruses” have already started coming back to life. Some scientists fear the release of diseases we may have never encountered, have no guard against, or immunity to.

Humanity has tarred on this planet for only a small percentage of the Earth’s existence. An analogy often used to explain this concept of ‘deep time’ is that of a clock. If we look at the planet’s entire history as being represented by 24 hours, then all of human history, from the first homosapien cave dwellers to our modern intercontinentally connected cities, have existed for just one minute and 17 seconds - 0.004 percent of Earth’s expansive history.

In that time, we have created art, built habitable stations in space, waged wars, and are beginning to unravel the secrets of our existence, but scientists warn of a threat to our way of life. The effects of our industrial revolution may melt the protective boundaries that have kept us safe for millennia.


“Infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling.”


Just 30 metres below the Siberian permafrost, scientists discovered something astonishing. In 2014, French researchers were studying samples retrieved from an expedition to the frozen tundras of northern Russia. Encased in ice for over 30,000 years, a never before seen “giant virus” was brought back to life in the lab after it thawed. Stunningly, the virus dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, was not only alive but hungry as well. Under the microscope, the group witnessed the virus infect a simple single-celled organism called an amoeba, multiply within its new host, then destroyed it.

The recently discovered giant Pithovirus is seen replicating inside its host, before destroying i

Luckily for us all, further testing concluded that this specific virus didn’t pose any threat to humans or animals. Researchers warn though, this most certainly may not always be the case. In a published study detailing their findings, both French and Russian scientists wrote, “Our results thus further substantiate the possibility that infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling.”

A drilling rig behind an oil pipeline seen at the Val Gamburtseva oil fields in Russia's Arctic Far North.

More recently, in July of this year, and outbreak of anthrax decimated reindeer herds and infected people, again in Siberia. The quickly warming climates casued a long-dead reindeer carcass to surface after remaining entombed under the permafrost for over 75 years. As the animal thawed, having died from an anthrax epidemic nearly a century ago, it released the revived deadly anthrax spores into the air. In all, 23 people were infected, one child died, and over 2,000 animals lost their lives due to the outbreak.


“Smallpox is not eradicated from the planet - only the surface.”


With climate scientists and ecologists ringing alarm bells, there is reason to be concerned. No one is sure just how many diseases are lurking under the ice; many of which we may have no natural defence against.

A veterinarian checks deer outside Yar-Sale town at Yamal Peninsula.

Smallpox is just one concern. In 1980, after claiming the lives of an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the war against smallpox had been won.

Since 1980,barely any people have been inoculated against the disease, leaving most of the world’s population gravely at risk of infection. With the growing possibility of long forgotten mass graves thawing and being unearthed, experts warn that an epidemic may burn through the small herder communities in Siberia and easily spread throughout the Russian population. Even animals that died over a century ago could trigger an outbreak.

A young girl in Bangladesh infected with smallpox in 1973

Professor Sergey Netesov, a leading scientist studying the siberian phenomenon, has found fragments of the virus’ DNA in animals who died in a village stricken with virus in 1890.

“It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial exploration, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from. If it is true that these viruses survive in the same way those amoeba viruses survive, then smallpox is not eradicated from the planet - only the surface,” Netesov said.

So as the temperatures rise and drilling explorations for gas and oil reserves spread to newly unfrozen and uncharted territories, the risks of releasing some never before seen or even familiar type of disease, becomes ever so likely.

Author: Omar Elwafaii

TRTWorld and agencies