In 2014 a team of researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research in Marseille, France carried out a deep survey of the coastal permafrost in Kolyma, a remote region in the northeast of Siberia. They recovered samples from thirty meters beneath the surface that had remained untouched, frozen in time, for tens of thousands of years, and in those samples they found something unusual: an ancient virus previously unknown to science.
Pithovirus sibericum was a virus larger and more genetically complex than any known in the modern day, containing more than 500 genes and large enough to be visible under a standard microscope, and the team, led by Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, returned the sample to their laboratory eager to investigate further. There they made a startling discovery.
The virus was still alive.
After 30,000 years laying dormant beneath the Siberian permafrost sibericum awoke, and when exposed to single-celled organisms the virus began to reproduce and aggressively infect the host cells. The sample was quickly destroyed as a precaution.
When news of this discovery caused alarm among the general public scientists rushed to reassure them that the risk of human infection from ancient viruses was minimal. Edward Mocarski, professor of microbiology at Emory University, said that only “a very small proportion represent viruses that can infect mammals, and an even smaller proportion pose any risk to humans.” He dismissed the suggestion that humanity had anything to fear from beneath the frozen wastes of Siberia.
Claverie and Abergel, however, remained unconvinced. They argued that a combination of climate change and industrial activity could lead to the accelerated melting of the permafrost and the reemergence of ancient viruses that had remained trapped for millennia; viruses against which we have no natural defenses, and for which there exist no vaccines.
“At the moment these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone,” said Claverie. “However, mining and drilling means digging through these ancient layers for the first time in millions of years. If viable particles are still there, this is a recipe for disaster.”
In 2018, they were proved right.