Deadly defrosted virus revives pandemic fears
An ancient pathogen in Siberia’s permafrost has been brought back to life. Experts warn that global warming could reawaken long-dormant biological threats. How worried should we be?
It has lain deep in the Siberian snow and ice since the Neanderthals foraged for food, forgotten while pharaohs built pyramids, Napoleon waged war and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. But now French scientists have uncovered the ‘pithovirus’ and returned it to life.
Discovered in the permafrost 100 feet below the Earth’s surface, the pathogen is five times larger than any ever seen before. While harmless to humans, it kills amoebas — single celled organisms — by entering them and then multiplying until the amoeba dies.
Although many scientists are thrilled by this discovery, they are anxious about its implications. Climate change and industrial digging are making the permafrost retreat, which could expose us to deadly pathogens that have been locked into the ice for millions of years. The biologists who discovered the pithovirus warn that exposing such germs could be a ‘recipe for disaster’. When the Black Death broke out in the 8th century, it killed half of the population of Europe. Could an equally devastating disease be unleashed?
Others believe biological catastrophe is more likely to originate in space: 90 tonnes of space debris falls on Earth every day, and almost ten percent of this could be bacterial. Some scientists argue SARS, which affected thousands in 2003, may have extraterrestrial origins. And Nick Bostrom, the head of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, thinks that humankind could be heading for disaster because of nanotechnology: making ourselves extinct by engineering a virus.
Yet astronomers point out that viruses can also be instrumental to life. A theory called necropanspermia suggests that a dead alien virus travelling on a comet fell into our atmosphere and reacted with chemicals here to create life on Earth. So humans may owe their very existence to a virus. We already know some help rather than hinder us, like those living in our mucus called phages, which kill bacteria. Could a newly discovered micro-organism have benefits, like aiding digestion, fighting cancer, or creating energy?
Some say it is only a matter of time until humankind is devastated by another catastrophic virus and that we should be giving more attention to how to protect ourselves — funding virus cures, and identifying ways to slow down climate change. The discovery of the pithovirus should be a wake-up call.
Others say that this would be a huge overreaction. While humankind constantly faces threats, there is no point worrying about what we cannot prevent. We should be more optimistic about the future as new scientific discoveries, even those that suggest viruses are hurtling towards us through space, have the potential to help us.
- How much should we worry about undiscovered viruses?
- ‘A man-made disaster is the most likely thing to wipe out our species.’ Do you agree?
- In groups, list the characteristics of viruses, bacteria and other categories of micro-organism.
- Read The Atlantic’s interview with Nick Bostrom in the Become an Expert section. Summarise five things that he thinks are a threat to mankind.
Some People Say...
“An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.’James Lovelock”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Are you saying I should live in constant fear of a virus?
- It would be a waste of time — the appearance of a devastating virus is beyond the control of ordinary mortals so there is not much to be done. Our understanding of viruses is constantly improving though, so if an unidentified virus does appear, it has more chance of being cured by medical science than ever before.
- If the necropanspermia theory is true, could that mean there is life on other planets?
- Yes — the virus on the comet must have come from somewhere! Some astronomers think that we are more likely to find clues to extraterrestrial life by looking for viruses, rather than any species similar to humans or the wildlife on Earth. If there are larger life forms out there, they are likely to have millions of viruses too.
- A layer of soil below the surface which is permanently frozen.
- Black Death
- Known as the ‘Great Pestilence’ in the Medieval period, the Black Death devastated Europe and Asia in the 8th and 14th centuries. It took the world 150 years to recover from the latter outbreak.
- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared in China in 2002 with 8,000 infections reported and 775 deaths. There were widespread fears that the virus would mutate into a more lethal form, but instead it slowly died away.
- Nick Bostrom believes that soon we will have DNA synthesising machines capable of producing viruses. A situation may arise where anyone could print a deadly virus.
- ‘Necro’ relates to death, ‘panspermia’ to the theory that life on Earth came from another planet. A virus travelling to Earth would be killed by the pressures of speeding through space, but, the theory argues, parts of the dead virus could combine with the Earth’s atmosphere to form new life.
- The slimy substance which coats the inside of our mouths, noses, eyelids, and digestive tracts, among other parts. We still have much to learn about how viruses might assist other bacteria that aid the human body, such as in the stomach.