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Melting Permafrost Could Release A Super Virus

Recently, a giant virus was discovered in Siberian permafrost.

The virus in question had been frozen for nearly 30,000 years, but had come to light when its frosty cocoon melted. Luckily, the virus strain — Pithovirus sibericum — is not harmful to humans.

Giant viruses were discovered 10 years ago in the U.K. What differentiates them from regular viruses is the fact that they can be viewed under visible light microscopes, which is a terrifying prospect.

When scientists revived the giant virus from the Siberian permafrost, it caused an infection, meaning it had been perfectly preserved under the ice. Researchers worry that as more and more ice caps begin melting, the danger of giant viruses being released into the air grows exponentially. Currently, researchers are proactively seeking out areas believed to be housing giant viruses in the hopes of containing them before they have the chance to cause damage.

Because many of these ancient viruses are unknown to researchers, they have no way of creating a cure should one find itself being released into the public. It sounds alarming, but scientists aren’t too worried about waking up one day, only to find that the world has become irreversibly infected.

Jean-Michel Claverie at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at Aix-Marseille University and his colleagues said:

“The revival of such an ancestral amoeba infecting virus … suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health”.

The process behind discovering these ancient, giant viruses sounds relatively simple: researchers take a type of amoeba that becomes infected when exposed to giant viruses and placed it near permafrost samples to be used as bait. Researchers say that seeking out giant viruses using this method is an “inexpensive and safe way to realistically assess the threat” these pathogens present.

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