Scientists are proceeding with plans to reanimate a 30,000 year old virus that has been frozen in Siberia, in order to prepare for the possible release of long-frozen pathogens as global warming melts Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, where long dormant viruses lie buried beneath the ise.
The discovery of Mollivirus sibericum, the fourth prehistoric virus to be found since 2003, was made by French researchers.
The Mollivirus is known as a “giant” virus because it is longer than half a micron, or two ten thousandths of an inch, and was found in the permafrost of northeastern Russia. As global temperatures rise what were formerly regions of “permafrost” are now going through freeze and thaw cycles, potentially introducing long frozen pathogens back into the ecosystem.
In order to prevent an incident, the researchers will first verify that the virus is not capable of animal or human disease. Lead researcher Jean-Michel Claverie commented on the discovery, “A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses.”
The likelihood of potential human exposure to such a pathogen is good, considering that these microbes are being discovered in resource-rich areas, which were previously impractical to access for industrial development. Mr. Claverie went on, “If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up to viruses such as smallpox that we thought were eradicated.”
Scientists have been interested to learn that these ancient viruses are more genetically complex than those of today, sometimes containing hundreds or even thousands of genes. The newly discovered M. sibericum has over 500 genes.
With the U.S. and Russia embarking on oil exploration missions and other projects in the newly accessible Arctic, the possibility for an incident is there. A far more likely scenario, however, would involve a flu pandemic, which has millions of available animal hosts at factory farms to provide for incubation and cycling of new iterations of the virus, and the presence of a human vector in the form of agricultural workers.
The most recent flu pandemic began in India in January 2015, and as of March has claimed more more than 2,000 lives and infected over 33,000. This particular strain was of swine flu, which had previously caused a worldwide pandemic in 2009.