Warming Permafrost Thaws: Viruses That Have Been Sealed For Thousands Of Years Could Reignite Outbreaks

In the June issue of The Spanish monthly Gout, journalist Laura Chaparo published an article entitled “The Epidemic Under the Ice,” edited as follows:

Novel Coronavirus is not the only microcosmic threat we face. The thawing of the permafrost that covers large areas of the north of the planet has allowed microbes to emerge that have been buried for hundreds of thousands of years. How dangerous are these microbes? Will their presence lead to outbreaks of diseases hitherto unknown to humans? These questions have been on everyone’s mind.

In the summer of 2016, a herd of reindeer and nomads on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula began suffering from a mysterious illness. Rumours of a “Siberian plague” were rife. In fact, the mysterious disease was last seen in the area in 1941. A young boy and a herd of reindeer died and were diagnosed with anthrax. The cause was a thawed reindeer carcass that had died of anthrax many years earlier.

Ice caps cover the Yamal Peninsula for much of the year in winter and melt in summer, allowing some viruses to regain their freedom.

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The coVID-19 outbreak earlier this year has brought the topic back to the table. Many governments and researchers are paying more attention to microbial threats, including viruses hidden beneath millennia of ice.

Many people fear that global warming could unleash a flood of viruses that could wreak havoc on human health and health systems. The main reason we shouldn’t worry too much about this, scientists say, is that while warming may melt ice and release some long-stored viruses, most are already inactivated at low temperatures. Because the host of this kind of virus is warm-blooded animal, it is difficult to continue to survive in low temperature environment. Moreover, the thawing process kills many microbes even if it avoids the cold temperatures.

Although experts say the chances of a pandemic caused by the virus under the ice are low, many governments have decided to take precautions to prevent a tragedy.

The threat to human health posed by microbes beneath the millennium permafrost remains a little-discussed topic, experts say, although many governments are concerned about the potential negative effects of climate change. Take the anthrax outbreak in the Yamal Peninsula, for example. Although it is caused by a known virus, humans cannot let down their guard because it is a real threat and there is still a lot of uncertainty. As the Eu has repeatedly stressed, one of the main tasks of member Governments is to strengthen public health prevention and control systems. This task is all the more urgent now that the novel Coronavirus epidemic is sweeping the world.