With the increase in global warming, many glaciers and permafrost have been melting continuously for several years. This irreversible permafrost thawing has freed up several bacteria and viruses frozen on the ice for years. One such virus revived from the melted ice is the zombie virus. These types of viruses remain dormant due to being trapped inside the ice. In this article, Dr Swati Rajagopal, Consultant - Infectious Diseases & Travel Medicine, Aster CMI Hospital, Bangalore,will share how these viruses return to life due to increased global warming.
Trapped Zombie Virus
Since 2022, many publications and reports have revealed several strains of the ancient virus that could infect cultured amoeba cells. In the most recent incident, scientists have unfrozen a dormant amoeba virus that had turned into a Zombie virus trapped inside the ice for almost 48,500 years. The data from this research has also highlighted how DNA viruses can remain infectious for more than 48,000 years in permafrost.
Scientists have also mentioned that these viruses can potentially cause infections among people and can be a considerable threat to human life. These viruses can significantly threaten public health, and further thawing of the ice could release more infectious viruses. So far, such viruses could remain infectious once exposed to sunlight, oxygen or heat. However, how long they retain the infectivity or infect a suitable host in that interval still needs to be researched.
The viruses could be diverse, infecting prokaryotes and even humans. However, the key takeaway from this discovery is that these viruses infect amoeba cells, not humans, and viruses and amoeba could co-exist frozen for many years. While these newly discovered zombie viruses are unlikely to cause a pandemic shortly, after researching the live cultures during the Covid-19 pandemic, many experts believe this constant melting of the permafrost and release of long-dormant viruses can lead to many COVID-19-style in the future.
In The Past
Microorganisms released due to the thawing of permafrost have proved deadly.
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For instance, in 2016, an outbreak of anthrax - a disease that causes Bacillus anthracis among humans and other mammals led to the death of a child and severely infected many people in Russia. His sudden outbreak impacted human life and killed thousands of regional reindeer.
While many experts are uncertain about the exact cause of the virus spread, it is believed that the outbreak primarily happened because of a reindeer carcass infected by anthrax decades ago and was exposed after a heatwave melted the frozen soil.
Such incidents have highlighted the potential risks of global warming, and if permafrost keeps thawing, we are at a higher risk. Even though viruses exist everywhere - it's not new, and not all can cause diseases or infections. But it is needless to say that we need more surveillance to understand the risk posed by these pathogens and should emphasise the fundamental concept of global warming risk.