South Africa

Thawed 50 000-year-old zombie virus poses health threat

zombie virus threat

Back in October 2022, French professor Jean-Michel Claverie uncovered a frozen ‘zombie virus’ from permafrost sites in Siberia, Russia. The virus dates back approximately 50 000 years.[1]

Claverie – who had been publishing research on dormant, ancient viruses for the past decade – believes the virus, called Pandoravirus yedoma, could still pose a threat.

Dormant ‘zombie virus’

In a paper published in February, Claverie said researchers are not taking these viruses seriously. He said “they wrongly suggest that… ‘zombie viruses’ are not a public health threat”.

The oldest strain discovered by Claverie dates back 48 500 years and was found in a sample of soil from an underground lake in Sibera.

WATCH: Ancient virus trapped in ice

Claverie explains: “We view these amoeba-infecting viruses as surrogates for all other possible viruses that might be in permafrost”.

“We see the traces of many, many, many other viruses. So we know they are there. We don’t know for sure that they are still alive.”

Addressing the threat of the 50 000-year-old virus, he says the reasoning is that “if the amoeba viruses are still alive, there is no reason why the other viruses will not be still alive”.

And if the viruses are still alive, it is also “capable of infecting their own hosts”.

Claverie isn’t the only one concerned; other scientists agree that long-frozen viruses should be considered a threat to public health.

Threat to immune defence

Birgitta Evengård, a professor emerita at UMEA Unviersity’s Department of Clinical Microbology explains:

“You must remember our immune defence has been developed in close contact with microbiological surroundings.

“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.”

Evengård was also the project leader of the Nordic Centre of Excellence’s CLINF-Russia extension which clarified the impacts of climate change on epidemiology of climate sensitive infections (CSIs).[2]

Climate change impact

Meanwhile, rising global temperatures cause the permafrost in the nothern hemisphere to thaw rapidly and irreversibly.

This, in turn, threatens to release a host of ancient viruses and bacteria which have remained dormant in the ice for thousands of years.

In their research paper[1], the scientists say:

“Ongoing international modeling and monitoring studies keep confirming that the continuous release of greenhouse gas due to human activities since the industrial revolution is causing significant climate change through global warming.”


[1] An Update on Eukaryotic Viruses Revived from Ancient Permafrost; Jean-Michel Claverie, Jean-Marie Alempic, Audrey Lartigue, Artemiy E. Goncharov, Guido Grosse, Jens Strauss, Alexey N. Tikhonov, Alexander N. Fedorov, Olivier Poirot, Matthieu Legendre, Sébastien Santini, Chantal Abergel; Volume 15, Issue 2, 10.3390/v15020564, 27 October 2022.
[2] Climate-change effects on the epidemiology of infectious diseases and the impacts on Northern societies (CLINF); Birgitta Evengard, 2016-2020