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By Jeff Cercone December 2, 2022

Ancient virus discovery will not spark a new pandemic

If Your Time is short

  • A team of scientists revived a nearly 50,000-year-old virus, and others, from Siberian permafrost.

  • The viruses proved to still be infectious, but only in amoebas, not humans, the researchers said.

  • The researchers said they hope the work can be used to prepare for potentially dangerous viruses that may one day resurface because of global warming. Other experts downplayed the risks of future pandemics from such a scenario.

Researchers’ revival of a nearly 50,000-year-old virus from Siberian permafrost has alarmed some social media users who fear another pandemic. 

A Nov. 29 Instagram post read, "There may be a new pandemic on the way after the release of a 50,000-year-old zombie virus." The post’s caption suggested it might be part of a new "plandemic" meant to depopulate the Earth.

We found other posts sharing similar baseless concerns.

The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

The claims refer to a recent study by researchers from France, Russia and Germany, that identified 13 new viruses from seven samples taken from Siberian permafrost, or ground that has been frozen for years. The oldest was thought to be 48,500 years old. The study is in preprint and not yet peer reviewed.

There’s no reason to panic, though. The virus was revived safely in a laboratory, not "released," into the world, as the claim implies. The researchers said there is no threat to humans; however, they hope the work can help scientists learn about dangerous viruses that could eventually resurface from melting permafrost because of global warming.

The researchers said they wanted to understand the potential public health threat from  "zombie viruses" that have remained dormant "since prehistoric times." 

The research found that these viruses are still infectious, even after years frozen in permafrost. The study expanded on a 2015 study, in which the team said it had revived a 30,000-year-old virus.

There was no danger in the work, said the researchers, who added that they chose to revive the viruses using single-cell organisms for biological security reasons.

"The biohazard associated with reviving (prehistoric) amoeba-infecting viruses is thus totally negligible," they said, noting that it eliminated "any risk for crops, animals or humans."

Jean-Michel Claverie, a professor at Aix-Marseille University who co-authored the study, told PolitiFact that there was no risk at all from their work and that using amoeba cells eliminated the need for a high-security laboratory. 

"The viruses we study are, given our protocol, only capable of infecting, and then reproducing in, a specific type of amoeba called Acanthamoeba," he said.

"Viruses are quite specific to a given host," he said. "Many dog viruses will not infect humans, for instance, and there is no chance that an amoeba-infecting virus could infect humans."

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Michael Buchmeier, a professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, agreed there was little risk from the lab work, which he equated to working with blood.

"Human blood is probably much more dangerous than the water out of a crater that's thawed out in permafrost," he said.

By showing the harmless virus was still infectious, Claverie said, they indirectly showed that other frozen viruses that could infect humans or animals if thawed are probably still infectious.

Although there is legitimate concern in the scientific community about the threats posed by viruses that may resurface, experts we contacted were not overly worried.

Buchmeier said the dangers from any future unfrozen viruses would make a good movie plot, but are likely overstated.

"Certainly we're going to find new species," in melted permafrost, he said. "But we're not likely to find something that's overly dangerous. We certainly haven't yet."

Buchmeier said its unknown how quickly any virus frozen in permafrost can survive once it’s exposed to ultraviolet light and oxidation, something the study’s authors also noted.

"I would be willing to bet that they're not long-lived," he said.

Eric Delwart, a virologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said if the researchers were able to isolate live viruses from ancient permafrost, that smaller, mammalian viruses could also survive. 

He expressed skepticism about whether the viruses discovered "are truly ancient" rather than the result of contaminated samples and said he’s unconcerned about unearthed viruses posing a risk to humans.

"The odds of an ancient virus being released from permafrost, infecting someone resulting in disease, followed by further human to human transmission, seems way lower than that of a pandemic initiated by any of the multitude of viruses shed by the enormous number of domesticated and wild animals currently raised or hunted for food," he said.

Claverie, however, hopes the research will raise awareness of the potential problems as the world warms and industries, such as mining, flock to the Arctic.

Our ruling

An Instagram post says, "There may be a new pandemic on the way after the release of a 50,000-year-old zombie virus."

But the virus discovered in Siberian permafrost by researchers wasn’t "released." It was taken from a sample and revived in a laboratory using amoeba as bait, a method the researchers said eliminated any threat to humans, animals or crops.

The researchers expressed concern about the risks of viruses that may resurface in the future. But experts we contacted said there is likely little risk. The claim that a new pandemic might be on the way because of the virus’s revival is not accurate. We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, Nov. 29, 2022

BioRxiv, "An update on eukaryotic viruses revived from ancient permafrost

Email interview with Jean-Michel Claverie, a professor at Aix-Marseille University and study co-author, Dec. 1, 2022

Email interview with Eric Delwart, a virologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Nov. 30, 2022

Phone interview with Michael Buchmeier, a biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, Nov. 30, 2022

Bloomberg News, "Scientists revive 48,500-year-old ‘zombie virus’ buried in ice," Nov. 29, 2022

The Weather Channel, "Scientists have reanimated a ‘zombie virus’ that had been stuck under a frozen lake for 50,000 years!," Nov. 28, 2022

Science Alert, "Scientists revived ancient 'zombie viruses' frozen for eons in Siberia," Nov. 25, 2022

New Scientist, "A 48,500-year-old virus has been revived from Siberian permafrost," Nov. 23, 2022

National Geographic, "Ancient "giant virus" revived from Siberian permafrost," March 3, 2014

PNAS, "In-depth study of Mollivirus sibericum, a new 30,000-y-old giant virus infecting Acanthamoeba," Sept. 8, 2015

National Academies workshop, "Understanding and responding to global health security risks from microbial threats in the arctic," 2020

The Guardian, "Next pandemic may come from melting glaciers, new data shows," Oct. 18, 2022

The New Republic, "The next pandemic could be hiding in the Arctic permafrost," April 2, 2020

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