Could a zombie virus frozen in mammoth remains leak out of a Russian lab and start a new pandemic?
The majestic creature had lain still in the permafrost for more than a million years. But all it took was one curious scientist tinkering with his long-dead body to unleash a terrifying new pandemic on the world.
No, it’s not the plot of a Jurassic Park sequel, nor any other theory about the origins of Covid-19 – although the outcome of this scientific investigation could be awfully similar.
It’s the story of how Russian researchers are right now digging up the bodies of long-dead mammals to try to “revive” Stone Age viruses.
Such viruses are thought to have slumbered in the frozen remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos, and other extinct species in northeastern Siberia for millennia.
Russian researchers are digging up the bodies of long-dead mammals to ‘resurrect’ Stone Age viruses.
Like the virus that caused Covid-19, these prehistoric “paleoviruses” are alien to the human body, and should they ever find their way across the species barrier, catastrophe could ensue. After all, we wouldn’t have a natural defense.
The woolly mammoths that roamed the Siberian steppes — until the last died out some 10,000 years ago — were fearsome creatures. They were as big as elephants and had sharp tusks that could impale a human unwise enough to approach them.
They seem to have an enduring fascination for biologists. A project called Colossal launched last year aims to tweak the genetic code of the mammoth’s closest living relative, the Asian elephant, to create a hybrid animal that could survive in the Arctic Circle.
This latest project – carried out by the Russian State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology known as Vector – aims to extract cell material containing the viruses that killed these frozen beasts and bring it back to the lab for experimentation.
What could possibly go wrong? To conjure up the all-too-real nightmare scenario, one need only listen to Vector’s story.
Russian scientists’ idea of meddling in long-dormant mammalian viruses has raised alarms among international experts
One of the research center’s outposts is a former biological weapons facility that accidentally released spores of deadly anthrax bacteria in April 1979 during the Soviet era. The resulting anthrax outbreak killed at least 66 people, although for years Soviet authorities denied the incident had happened.
Today, Vector houses one of the 59 high-security biolabs around the world (another is China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, widely suspected of accidentally releasing Covid-19).
Vector’s deadly mishaps also include an incident in 2004 when a researcher died after accidentally pricking herself with a needle containing the Ebola virus.
The idea of Russian scientists to meddle with long-dormant viruses infecting mammals has raised alarms from international experts such as Jean-Michel Claverie, a professor of microbiology at the University of Aix-Marseille in France.
Last month, Claverie revealed that his team had resuscitated a Siberian “zombie” virus themselves. This lay frozen under a lake bed for almost 50,000 years.
But in Claverie’s case, his work focuses — to be safe, he insists — solely on viruses that can only infect unicellular amoebas, rather than threatening animals or humans.
‘[Vector’s research] is terrible. I’m totally against it,” he said. ‘[It] is very, very risky. Our immune system has never encountered this type of virus. Some of them could be 200,000 or even 400,000 years old. But old viruses that infected animals or humans could still be infectious.”
Vector, State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology outside of Novosibirsk
Regarding Vector’s confidence in biosecurity, Claverie says, “I wouldn’t be very confident that everything is up to date.”
Even if the Russians could be counted on not releasing a virus, we have other reasons to fear that something evil may be coming from the frozen debris of the Arctic.
This is because permafrost — vast swaths of permanently frozen ground — is no longer permanent. Thanks to global warming, it’s melting and deadly old contagious enemies can emerge from it. And this really isn’t science fiction: it’s already happened.
Eight years ago, the far north of Russia experienced unusually mild summer temperatures.
Shortly after, 72 people from a nomadic reindeer herding community, including 41 children, were hospitalized with infections.
The culprit was anthrax again. However, this time not from a Russian bioweapons laboratory, but from human and animal remains buried in the thawing permafrost.
A 12-year-old boy died. “We literally fought for the life of every person, but the infection showed its cunning,” said the governor of the affected Yamal region, Dmitry Kobylkin. The anthrax disease, known locally as the Siberian plague, had not appeared in the region since 1941.
But average temperatures have risen by up to 1°C in northern Russia over the past 15 years. And the warmer climate is now thawing the permafrost that covers much of the country, including cemeteries and animal burial sites.
The floodwaters of the thawing permafrost also erodes riverbanks where nomads bury their dead. From such corpses, zombies’ anthrax spores spawn.
Anthrax spores can survive for hundreds of years in frozen human and animal remains, waiting to be released, according to Alexey Kokorin, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s climate and energy program in Russia.
Viruses from these remains can then infect the groundwater that people drink. In fact, the Siberian boy who died in 2014 had an intestinal form of the disease, which initially causes fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.
What other deadly contagions could be waiting for us?
In 2005, NASA revived bacteria trapped in Alaska’s permafrost for more than 12,000 years. Other scientists have extracted genetic material from diseases like smallpox, the 1918 Spanish flu, and even bubonic plague. In fact, human remains exhumed from frozen Alaskan ground in 1997 have revealed the complete genome of the 1918 H1N1 influenza virus that killed tens of millions.
Anthrax spores can survive for hundreds of years in frozen human and animal remains, waiting to be released, according to Alexey Kokorin
Two years ago, a workshop attended by global experts from organizations such as the European Academies Scientific Advisory Council warned that “permafrost can harbor infectious viruses or bacteria that have been dormant for thousands or even millions of years, to which local populations have no immunity and there are no countermeasures”.
Some scientists hope that these viruses and bacteria could not survive freezing for many centuries because they originally evolved to thrive in warm bodies.
However, this international workshop warned that there is a real risk of deadly global pandemic outbreaks that are “low probability but high impact”.
Aside from global warming, the biggest risk of a “thawed pandemic” comes from open pit mining.
In Siberia, the frozen ground is increasingly being exploited for fossil fuels, with open pit coal mines often being built near human settlements. This form of mining removes layers of permafrost that can be hundreds of thousands of years old.
Professor Claverie, the French microbiologist, says this could create another level of risk as it’s done outdoors rather than in a secure biolab. “You don’t know what’s there,” Claverie warns.
Scientists from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held a special meeting in 2019 to examine the threat posed by deadly microbes emerging from our planet’s melting ice.
They concluded that the world needs increased disease surveillance in the Arctic to detect outbreaks as quickly as possible so that countermeasures or cures can be developed in time to save millions.
As the Claverie team reports in a study to be published, the greatest risk of all comes from unknown viruses, which, like Covid-19, can spread rapidly in a population lacking natural immunity and trigger a pandemic.
Our greatest hope would be to develop vaccines in the shortest possible time. The lesson from Covid-19 is that we need international cooperation to decode the genes of the new threat and take swift countermeasures.
However, such cooperation between Western and Russian scientists has itself been largely put on hold in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
If there was ever a bad time to meddle with frozen Russian mammoths, it surely is now.
https://www.soundhealthandlastingwealth.com/health/could-a-zombie-virus-frozen-in-mammoth-remains-leak-from-a-russian-lab-and-spark-a-new-pandemic/ Could a zombie virus frozen in mammoth remains leak out of a Russian lab and start a new pandemic?