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Why you shouldn’t freak out about ancient “Frankenviruses” emerging from Arctic permafrost

A handout photo provided on September 7, 2015 by the IGS-CNRS and Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine shows cells of the Mollivirus sibericum. The virus buried deep in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years, is thought to be the newest representative of what are loosely known as “giant viruses.” AFP PHOTO / Genomic Information Laboratory Director and structural Marseille / CNRS / Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine

If you use Facebook, you’ve probably heard by now about the 30,000 year old “giant” virus — some dubbed it “Frankenvirus” — that has been discovered in frozen Siberian permafrost. Concerns abound about the idea that, like in that bad Val Kilmer movie, we’re going to awaken something dangerous from the icy north as global warming thaws more and more tundra.

In a sense, it’s not surprising that these fears were raised — the researchers behind the work themselves put them front and center. This is the second “giant” virus that the team — led by Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique — has discovered in the same hunk of 30,000 year old permafrost. And as they put it in their paper, “The fact that two different viruses retain their infectivity in prehistorical permafrost layers should be of concern in a context of global warming.”

[A giant ancient virus was just uncovered in melting ice — and it won’t be the last]

In the study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers continue, “we cannot rule out that distant viruses of ancient Siberian human (or animal) populations could reemerge as arctic permafrost layers melt and/or are disrupted by industrial activities.”

The problem is not this particular virus (dubbed Mollivirus sibericum) or that it is “giant” in size — big enough that it doesn’t require a high-powered microscope to see, and packed with more genetic material than the viruses that researchers are used to. Nor is the worry that the virus, once “revived,” in the researchers’ words, would threaten humans — it only infects amoebas.

“We will verify in human and mice cells that this virus is not able to propagate in human and mice cells,” Abergel told the Post Thursday. “And they don’t, of course.”

“All viruses tend to be very specific about their host species, so there is essentially no chance that the viruses they discovered will have any impact on human health,” added Grant McFadden, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the University of Florida who is also president of the American Society for Virology.

So the issue isn’t this particular bug – it’s what else might be out there. In a fact sheet sent to me by Abergel from their original, 2014 giant virus discovery, the researchers detail their concerns about the effect of more industrial activities in the Arctic in particular. “Mining and drilling means bringing human settlements and digging through these ancient layers for the first time since millions years. If ‘viable’ virions are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster.”

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that other researchers don’t think this is such a big deal, and even worry that fears may be raised unnecessarily. For instance, I spoke with Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University, who was familiar with the research but thought the fears of subterranean Arctic viruses emerging that would infect humans were overblown.

“This is a theoretical possibility, but in the absence of any evidence that this might be dangerous, I think we should worry about the viruses that could jump out of mammals on Earth right now,” said Racaniello.

Racaniello said that of all the things that virologists worry about in terms of human risks, thawing Arctic viruses is low on the list. He added that “we look for viruses in all kinds of living things on Earth, not just frozen things — including wild animals. Nobody complains about doing that sort of work, either, because it’s trying to figure out what’s here on Earth with us. There isn’t any effort to curtail it at all.”

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, had a similar take. After reviewing the new study, he responded by e-mail that “I do not worry about this any more than I am concerned about the possibility of the emergence of a pandemic influenza from the already exposed environment.”

Fauci continued:

….microbes newly emerge like AIDS, SARS, or MERS or re-emerge like West Nile in the USA and Chikungunya in the Western Hemisphere.  This is a fact of our planet and our existence…. The finding of new viruses in permafrost is not much different from all of this. Its relevance will be dependent on a sequence of unlikely events: the permafrost virus must be able to infect humans, it must then be pathogenic (cause disease), and it must be able to spread efficiently from human to human. This can happen, but it is very unlikely.

Climate change itself poses significant viral health risks, adds the University of Florida’s Grant McFadden, but not because of thawing permafrost. Rather, the worry is “the wider global spread of insect vectors (particularly mosquitoes) and the viral pathogens they carry,” he says. “Compared to the real threat caused by ever increasing geographic ranges of vector-born diseases like Dengue and Chikungunya viruses, the threat to human health of re-animated viruses from thawing permafrost is vanishingly small.”

Indeed, amid all the fear and extreme headlines, many are missing that the relatively recent discovery of giant viruses — not just in permafrost but in several other locations as well — represents a major breakthrough of basic biological science. It underscores that we don’t know everything under the sun, whether among animals or otherwise.

Granted, I did reach one researcher who evinced more concern.

Tara Smith, a microbiologist who studies infections spread from animals to humans at Kent State University, said by e-mail that she was “conflicted” about the new work. As Smith explained: “I think it’s important to do these types of studies, because as the earth warms, we certainly have the potential to be exposed to new pathogens that have been trapped in ice for millennia. It’s important to know what the chances are that they could survive this long-term freezing and still infect their host.”

At the same time, Smith added, “I think the public is wary of such studies, and we’ve had high-level mistakes at the CDC and other labs … that right now, it’s hard to justify the importance of such work to the public, and tough for everyone to believe it can be done safely and without incident.”

The bottom line, then, seems to be that we’re dealing with a “theoretical possibility” of a danger right now, to quote Racaniello. The danger is certainly conceivable, because viruses can stay inactive when frozen for vast periods of time, and then come back and infect something. But it’s also a reflection of our sci-fi mindset, which tends to see dangers when really, we should be reveling in the power of science to discover new, and amazing, aspects of life.