Fact Check By: Craig Jones, Newswise



French scientists have sparked fears of yet another pandemic after reviving a “zombie virus” that had been trapped under a frozen lake in Russia for a record 50,000 years.

Claim Publisher and Date: New York Post among others on 2022-11-25

Newswise — You may have read the frightening headlines that are trending in the news now, Scientists revive ‘zombie’ virus that was trapped under frozen lake for 50,000 years, Scientists warn about revived ‘zombie virus’ in Russia, Zombie virus is revived after 48,500 years in the permafrost. These headlines may seem like a premise for a science fiction film, but there is some truth to them. The ancient viruses spotlighted in these articles cannot infect humans, but this hasn’t stopped many users on social media (examples here and here) from freaking out. 

A team of researchers from Aix-Marseille University uncovered ancient viruses from underneath a frozen lake in Siberia. The oldest virus, named Pandoravirus yedoma after the mythological character Pandora, was 48,500 years old, a record age for a frozen virus returning to a state where it has the potential to infect other organisms. The virus infects single-cell organisms known as amoebas, and cannot infect humans or animals. The scientists say the revival was done in a controlled laboratory. And, while dangerous, the viruses could help us prepare for pandemic-level issues as the permafrost thaws. The same researchers discovered a 30,000-year-old virus frozen in permafrost in 2014 and confirmed that it could still infect creatures. Other ancient viruses have been located in mammoth wool and the intestines of a Siberian wolf – all buried beneath the Siberian permafrost.

The preprint paper, titled, “An update on eukaryotic viruses revived from ancient permafrost” is published on the server bioRxiv. In the study, scientists found that all the “zombie viruses” that have been uncovered have the potential to be infectious, and are therefore a “health threat.”  If these giant viruses are still alive after several millennia, then it stands to reason that other viruses may be as well. The scientists warn, “It is therefore legitimate to ponder the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and getting back into circulation by the thawing of ancient permafrost layers.”

More research is needed to determine the level of infectiousness of these viruses when exposed to the elements such as the open air or the heat from the sun.

The concern that climate change could unearth diseases that have been dormant is widespread in the scientific community. Here's Sandy Dearth, Director, Center for Public Health Practice at Indiana University:

I think there is legitimate concern about climate change revealing organisms that have been buried/frozen. The frozen anthrax incident the author mentioned in the article is a true event that many of us epidemiologists reference when discussing the potential impact of climate change on public health.

Dr. Mark Stibich, Epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Officer and founder of Xenex Disinfection Services has this to say...

Emerging pathogens, whether from species spill-over and antimicrobial resistance or melting permafrost, pose a serious threat to global public health. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly illustrates the need for improved public health investments. Hospital Infection Preventionists and Environmental Services Directors have wanted better weapons in the battle against superbugs for years. Fortunately there are now effective solutions available to battle the pathogens we know about today -- and the ones we may face in the future. For example, these pathogens aren't prepared for the intense UV light that LightStrike disinfection robots produce because UV-C light doesn’t naturally occur on Earth. In other words, these emerging pathogens -- even the "zombie viruses" that may emerge from melting permafrost -- have never been exposed to the intense UV light generated by our pulsed xenon UV robots and therefore don’t have defenses against it. Because we use physics, not chemistry, to destroy pathogens and disinfect surfaces, our robots are future-proofed against these frightening emerging pathogens.