SCIENTISTS fear “zombie viruses” containing radioactive waste could be unleashed from 30,000-year-old frozen soil.
Researchers have uncovered traces of viruses and bacteria that can infect humans in the frozen layers of soil beneath the ground in the Arctic.
The permafrost essentially serves as a time capsule for ancient viruses, and mummified remains of extinct animals, such as the woolly rhino.
The potentially problematic soil is believed to be concealing chemical and radioactive waste dating back to the Cold War.
Radioactive material has been dumped in the Arctic — by Russia and the US — since the start of nuclear testing in the 1950s.
If the frozen soil melts, the viruses could pose a pandemic threat.
Jean-Michel Claverie, a professor of medicine and genomics at the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine, discovered what he calls “zombie viruses” in the Siberian frozen soil.
In 2014, he managed to revive a virus from the permafrost – making it infectious for the first time in 30,000 years.
And Claverie warned that ancient viruses coming back to life poses a serious health threat.
“We see the traces of many, many, many other viruses,” he told CNN.
“So we know they are there. We don’t know for sure that they are still alive.
“There is no reason why the other viruses will not be still alive, and capable of infecting their own hosts.”
Permafrost offers the perfect conditions to preserve viruses as it’s exceptionally cold, starved of oxygen, and pitch black.
For example, the body of a woman exhumed in 1997 from permafrost in Alaska was found to contain the influenza strain responsible for the devastating 1918 pandemic.
Kimberley Miner, a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said it’s “super important” to keep permafrost frozen.
“We’re really unclear as to how these microbes are going to interact with the modern environment,” she said.
“It’s not really an experiment that I think any of us want to run.”
Birgitta Evengård, professor at Umea University’s Department of Clinical Microbiology in Sweden, called for better surveillance of the risk from potential pathogens in permafrost.
“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 defense is not sufficient,” she said.
“It is correct to have respect for the situation and be proactive and not just reactive. And the way to fight fear is to have knowledge.”