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Giant Viruses Are Hiding in Permafrost, But Not for Long

Ancient viruses have been lying dormant in Siberian permafrost for centuries. But global warming is about to change that.

If you’re a germophobe, you won’t find comfort even in bleak Siberian expanses. Scientists have made another massive discovery of ancient (and giant) viruses hidden dormant in the permafrost. As the planet warms, finding these things—and waking them—is going to become more commonplace.

That’s significant, especially when you understand the gravity of the findings for experts involved in the ongoing research.

Jean-Michel Claverie has a lengthy résumé as professor of Medical Genomics and Bioinformatics at the University of Mediterranée School of Medicine, director of the Mediterranean Institute of Microbiology, and head of the Structural and Genomic Information Laboratory, in Marseille, France. He sent The Daily Beast an extensive evaluation of findings from this and previous giant viruses. That document states, “The fact that we might catch a viral infection from a long-extinct Neanderthal individual is a good demonstration that the notion that a virus could be ‘eradicated’ from the planet is plain wrong, and give us a false sense of security. At least a stock of vaccine should be kept, just in case.”

This may seem terrifying in the vein of every outbreak movie up to and including World War Z, but it’s actually unlikely that something buried in the permafrost will be awoken from slumber and destroy all of humanity.

Just to be sure, we asked Dr. James Van Etten, a professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln some hypotheticals.

He started by saying that it’s not likely a danger to humanity if one of these viruses entered the ocean. “Most likely a virus that entered the ocean would probably be degraded by both physical and biological events before it came in contact with its host. Therefore, this scenario is extremely unlikely.”

He likewise confirmed that if a virus predates humanity, it’s unlikely to be specialized to harm us. “Most viruses are highly specific for their hosts,” Van Etten said. “That is, humans are resistant to most of the viruses found in the world and resistance is not always due to immunity. For example, if one does not have a receptor for a virus, it will not infect the person.”

And Van Etten reassured that it’s unlikely that will be the case given the age of the viruses: “Probably very unlikely.”

Which is not to say it’s impossible to get a virus from a mummy or frozen sample. “One of the early arguments against getting rid of the last two stocks of smallpox virus [which has been eliminated from the world] was that some person with the disease would be found frozen somewhere,” says Van Etten, “and might infect a human who came in contact with the subject. To my knowledge this has not happened.”

It could, in theory. Claverie’s primer made one thing clear: Permafrost is not ice. “It is much richer in microbes of all kinds, and a much better preserver than ice. Everything is everywhere, as microbes go, and there is no more no less virus there than in other places. One make it special is that microbes that we thinks have been eradicated from the planet (i.e. the surface) might still be there in the deeper permafrost layers. Smallpox is one. A lot of people have died of variola/smallpox in Siberia and so, some infectious virions might still be there.”

Van Etten adds that “one can not answer it until one has the virus.” Similarly, it’s impossible to tell if—were one of these viruses specified to us already—we would have some existing immunity to it. He was most skeptical of something Ebola-like lurking in the ice as well.

Still, the distant possibility does exist, and as more and more polar thawing occurs, our statistical chance of finding something will grow. But Van Etten thinks that a viral outbreak is a worry you can put out of your head. “Certainly,” he says, “I would not lose any sleep over this issue.”