A zombie apocalypse is poised to strike humanity. It won’t bring legions of the undead staggering through city streets hungry for brains, but it could be just as deadly. The threat comes from so-called “zombie” viruses and bacteria, frozen for tens of thousands of years, that are coming back to life as global warming melts permafrost in the Arctic regions of Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia.
“The risk is no longer simply a fantasy that we shouldn’t be prepared to defend against,” says Corey Bradshaw, professor of global ecology at Flinders University, Australia, who has published a shocking study revealing the likelihood of long-dormant pathogens wreaking havoc on Earth.
He adds: “Our results are worrisome, because they point to an actual risk deriving from the rare events where pathogens currently trapped in the melting permafrost and ice produce severe ecological impacts.”
How severe? The study’s computer model found that one in 100 pathogens released from the ice could become deadly invaders, killing up to 30 per cent of their “host community”. If a reanimated zombie virus were to infect humans, for example, that could lead to 2.36 billion deaths, making the coronavirus seem as harmless as the common cold.
Despite the advances of modern medicine, people today may have no natural defences against undiscovered pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have been hidden within the frozen soil for millennia.
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“As a society, we need to understand the potential risk posed by these ancient microbes so we can prepare for any unintended consequences of their release into the modern world,” Professor Bradshaw warns.
While this may all sound like the plot from a Hollywood disaster film, ancient pathogens are already with us.
In 2014, an ancient giant virus called pithovirus sibericum was revived from Siberian permafrost after remaining dormant for 30,000 years. And in the Himalayas, bacteria trapped in the ice cap on the Tibetan plateau, frozen for more than 750,000 years, was brought back to life in 2003.
An anthrax outbreak in Western Siberia that killed thousands of reindeer and infected dozens of people in 2016 was traced to ancient bacteria in thawing permafrost.
Disturbingly, a recent study of viruses trapped in Arctic lake sediment for thousands of years found that they shared a remarkable genetic compatibility with potential living hosts. However, it’s not only microscopic organisms emerging from the melting ice. Scientists last week revealed they had revived a small female roundworm that had spent the past 46,000 years frozen beneath 130ft of ice and that, on thawing, it gave birth to offspring.
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The usual lifespan of most nematodes is one to two months. A previously unknown species, it has since generated more than 100 generations of descendants in the lab, reproducing through asexual reproduction.
“The age over which it survived is… shocking,” says Gregory Copenhaver, director of the Institute for Convergent Science at the University of North Carolina.
While many scientists are excitedly studying the way cellular life can be revived after lying dormant for millennia, others are looking at the melting permafrost with grave concern for the future of mankind.
“Our findings suggest that threats so far confined to science fiction could, in reality, pose serious risk as powerful drivers of ecological damage,” says Dr Giovanni Strona of the European Commission Joint Research Centre, who co-authored the latest study.
Permafrost is the permanently frozen ground covering one-fifth of the Northern Hemisphere, at depths of up to almost 5,000 feet. Found primarily in Arctic regions, it is also prevalent in the high altitudes of the Himalayas and the Andes.
Thawing at break-neck speed as global warming advances, permafrost also presents other ecological challenges. Scientists estimate that it holds double the amount of carbon dioxide currently in Earth’s atmosphere, and could release trapped greenhouse gases that dangerously accelerate climate change.
Radioactive materials dumped in the Arctic by Russia and the US since nuclear testing began in the 1950s could also be exposed.
Diseases like smallpox – eradicated except for samples held in secure biolabs – could survive in ancient victims buried in the permafrost and being exposed by global warming, sparking deadly new epidemics.
Melting permafrost is also causing the ground to sink, collapsing houses, buildings, roads and vital pipelines, threatening vulnerable Arctic communities. Siberia is warming at up to four times the global rate.
“The permafrost is thawing so fast, we scientists can’t keep up any more,” says Professor Anna Liljedahl of the University of Alaska, in Fairbanks.
As the ice melts, dead animals long buried in the ice, often infested with pathogens, are being disinterred.
The hunt for ancient woolly mammoths, frozen with their valuable ivory tusks, has added to the viruses and bacteria being unearthed.
Zombie pathogens are proving far from rare. A decade-long study by a team of scientists from France, Germany and Russia found that living bacteria and viruses frozen in the tundra are more common than once thought.
“Every time we look for infectious viruses in the permafrost, we find some,” says virologist Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, who has discovered at least five new families of viruses in thawing tundra. “We see the traces of many, many other viruses.”
Fortunately, most viruses emerging from the permafrost are not dangerous to humans – so far they have primarily infected amoeba. But it only needs one to potentially prove disastrous.
Many scientists prefer to focus on the present danger of modern-day viruses like ebola, dengue fever, cholera and even influenza that target humans.
Virologist Dr Anthony Fauci, who led America’s campaign against Covid-19, has previously said that ancient pathogens would have to be lucky to target humans: “The permafrost virus must be able to infect humans, it must then be pathogenic – cause disease – and it must be able to spread efficiently from human to human. This can happen, but it is very unlikely.”
Yet the latest study serves as a wake-up call to the potentially catastrophic dangers. Zoonotic viruses – those capable of spreading from animals to humans, which some scientists believe may include the Covid-19 virus – are of mounting concern as natural wildlife habitats shrink, pushing humans and animals closer together.
It may be only a matter of time before an ancient pathogen appears with the right combination of traits to spark a pandemic. Professor Birgitta Evengard, of the Umea University in Sweden warns: “If there is a virus hidden in the permafrost that we have not been in contact with for thousands of years, it might be that our immune defence is not sufficient.”
More than 3.6 million people live in the Arctic region, and Professor Claverie cautions: “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 in the wake of industrial ventures.”
A 2020 study by the University of Hamburg, Germany, predicted: “We can expect to see a 3.8 degree Celsius increase in permafrost temperatures, which would cause half of all permafrost to thaw.”
Scientists believe the best way to avoid a zombie virus apocalypse is to halt – or even reverse – global warming.
“There’s a lot going on with the permafrost that is of concern,” says climate scientist Kimberly Miner at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. And it really shows why it’s super important we keep as much of the permafrost frozen as possible.”
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