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Unearthing ancient viruses could spark a new pandemic

Recently, several international experts have started to raise alarms about attempts made by a team of Russian scientists to “reawaken” and study in their laboratory ancient viruses found in the carcasses of frozen mammals, such as woolly mammoths, trapped in the Siberian permafrost. Much like in the case of SARS-CoV-2 at the beginning of the pandemic, humans are immunologically naïve to such prehistoric viruses buried in the permafrost and, although most of them may not be able to infect us, a handful that potentially could may spark new outbreaks or even another pandemic.

In an article published at the beginning of December on bioRxiv, a team of researchers led by Jean-Michel Claverie (an emeritus professor of Virology at the Aix-Marseille University in France) has described their discovery of a virus that had been stranded under a frozen Siberian lake more than 48,500 years ago. While this virus seemed to be infectious only to amoebas, the scientists stressed that many other types of viruses could lurk in similar locations, and that some of them may be able to infect humans and other animals.

“Every time we look, we will find a virus. It’s a done deal. We know that every time we’re going to look for viruses, infectious viruses in permafrost, we are going to find some,” Claverie said.

While climate change and subsequent permafrost thawing holds significant risks for releasing some of these viruses from the places in which they had been trapped for thousands of years, human intervention could be an even more worrisome factor in these viruses’ (re)emergence.

For instance, Russia’s State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (known as Vector) is now aiming to extract cellular material containing the viruses that killed ancient mammoths discovered in the permafrost, and take it back to the lab for experimentation. According to Claverie – and various other scientists worldwide – such experiments are highly dangerous and should not be performed.

“[Vector’s research] is terrible. I’m totally against it. [It] is very, very risky. Our immune systems have never encountered these types of viruses. Some of them could be 200,000 or even 400,000 years old. But ancient viruses that infected animals or humans could still be infectious,” he warned. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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