Several top scientists are sounding the alarm bells after it emerged that eight potentially deadly “zombie viruses” are running rampant – without us even knowing about it.
And it is all down to climate change.
According to boffins in Russia, Germany and France, who got together to pen a new study into what happens when permafrost thaws, it was found that several deadly viruses are being released into the open air despite being trapped there since prehistoric times, various outlets report.
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Speaking to Live Sciene, Jean-Michel Claverie, a computational biologist at Aix-Marseille University in France said: “We do not have formal proof that viruses other than amoeba-specific viruses could survive as long, but there would be no reason why not, because all viruses basically have the same property of being inert particles while outside their host cells.
“We do not wish to take the immense risk of starting a new pandemic with unknown 'zombie' viruses from the distant past just to demonstrate that we are right.
“The risk is bound to increase in the context of global warming, in which permafrost thawing will keep accelerating, and more people will populate the Arctic.”
The eight viruses experts believe are now posing a threat to the world are Pithovirus Sibericum, Mollivirus Sibericum, Pithovirus Mammoth, Pandoravirus Mammoth, Pandoravirus yedoma, Megavirus Mammoth, Pacmanvirus Lupus and Cedratvirus Lena.
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Of those, the Pithovirus Sibericum is one of the biggest viruses ever found, measuring in at 1.5 micrometres long.
It was found in 2014, and is thought to be around 30,000 years old.
Mr Claverie said: “This is the first time we've seen a virus that's still infectious after this length of time.
“The ease with which these new viruses were isolated suggests that infectious particles of viruses specific to many other untested eukaryotic hosts [including humans and animals] probably remain abundant in ancient permafrost.”
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The virus is thought to be harmless to humans, but its impact on wildlife could be dangerous.
The Mollivirus Sibericum poses a significant risk to humans, as it is thought that it had a huge impact on ancient Siberian humans.
Mr Claverie said: “We cannot rule out that distant viruses of ancient Siberian human (or animal) populations could re-emerge as arctic permafrost layers melt and/or are disrupted by industrial activities.”
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Pandoravirus Yedoma has previously been found to kill amoeba cells, and is thought to be around 48,500 years old, while Megavirus Mammoth is another that infects amoebas.
No human cases of these viruses have been found yet, but the experts are under the impression that the more permafrost thaws, the greater the chances of that happening are.
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