What is the ‘zombie virus’ found in Russia – and should we be worried?

By Doha Zouhair

Researchers revive viruses from melting Siberian permafrost frozen for up to 48,500 years, raising fears that pathogens could create new infections

The words « zombie virus discovered in Russian ice » sounds like something straight out of a horror film ― although after the pandemic, it’s pretty difficult to shock any of us.

But scientists this week published research that shows viruses frozen for tens of thousands of years in Siberian permafrost are being revived.

Researchers from France, Germany and Russia revived 13 new types of virus that had been on ice in Siberian soil for between 27,000 and 48,500 years.

They said their work posed negligible risk to people ― unlike that of other scientists looking for ancient viruses in frozen remains of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses or prehistoric horses.

‘Back-from-the-dead’ viruses

The so-called zombie viruses are no threat to people, being types that infect only micro-organisms, but other pathogens released in future as permafrost melts could, scientists say, pose risks to humans.

Reports from Greenpeace, the environmental organisation, have even asked if such « back-from-the-dead » pathogens could lead to a new pandemic.

The findings are an echo of the 1993 film Jurassic Park, in which scientists cloned dinosaurs using DNA taken from insects preserved in amber ― only for the creatures to wreak havoc on humankind.

Permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, is mostly found in Alaska, Canada and Siberia, and covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, but areas are thawing as the climate warms.

Numerous other research groups are looking at pathogens, including bacteria, and larger organisms being released as a result.