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‘Zombie viruses’ found as Siberian permafrost melts, researchers say

Researchers say that thawing Siberian permafrost has exposed “zombie” viruses that have been trapped for centuries beneath the layer of frozen ground and water.

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According to researchers, 13 previously unknown pathogens have been discovered as they mined the area, The Washington Post reported.

The scientists found one virus that they believe had been stranded under a lake more than 48,500 years ago, according to the research that was led by microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Science Alert reported.

The research has not yet been peer-reviewed but was published on bioRxiv.

The scientists say a warming planet is the reason the permafrost, or ground that continuously remains below 32 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more years, is melting and they can retrieve the viruses.

“Every time we look, we will find a virus,” Jean-Michel Claverie told the Post. Claverie is a co-author of the study and an emeritus professor of virology at Aix-Marseille Université in France.

“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.”

One of the amoeba-targeting viruses was found in the frozen intestinal remains of a Siberian wolf from at least 27,000 years ago, the study said.

Researchers say there is no danger of one of the viruses they found spreading to animals or humans because they are infectious only to amoebas. Those pathogens are not the types likely to cause a pandemic like the COVID-19 virus did.

The danger, some virologists say, would be if the bodies of animals or humans who died from a virus like smallpox, were unearthed and a pathogen that could withstand extreme temperatures remained frozen inside.

“In nature we have a big natural freezer, which is the Siberian permafrost,” said Paulo Verardi, a virologist who is the head of the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science at the University of Connecticut.

“And that can be a little bit concerning,” especially if pathogens are frozen inside animals or people, he said.

Verardi said the pathogens discovered by the researchers are not a reason for people to panic.

“If you do the risk assessment, this is very low,” Verardi added. “We have many more things to worry about right now.”

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