Next global pandemic could be hiding in melting ice, warns leading biologist

Rotting corpses and animal carcasses infected with lethal diseases could cause the next global pandemic, a leading scientist has warned.

Fatal illnesses such as anthrax, tetanus, and smallpox can be preserved in Arctic ice sheets for thousands or even millions of years, microbiologist Anirban Mahapatra said.

Historically this has posed little threat to humanity, but as ice sheets melt and glaciers recede at a rapid pace the diseases contained within can infect the living and cause widespread outbreaks.

In fact, they already are.

Five years ago a spate of anthrax cases in Siberia was traced to the 2,300 rotting reindeer carcasses contained in melting Arctic permafrost – or frozen soil.

During a summer heatwave the ice melted, exposing the local population to an unexpected – and terrifying – biological threat.

A 12-year-old boy died of the disease, with hundreds more severely infected in the region's worst outbreak for 75 years.

Dr Mahapatra, a researcher at the American Chemical Society, thinks this is just a hint at what's to come.

He told the Daily Star: "There are viruses that can survive for tens, hundreds, thousands and – theoretically – even millions of years in ice.

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"What's happening is we're finding a lot of very well-preserved animals, such as mammoths, uncovered by the melting ice.

"If these animals were infected with viruses and bacteria, then they can spread that to other animals and people."

It doesn't help that temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world, a process known as polar amplification.

Worse still, the toxic permafrost could also carry plagues most people haven't been exposed to for many years – and are therefore less immune to.

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One example is smallpox, which is likely to be found in carcass and corpse populations throughout the world's glaciers.

If an outbreak were to expose nearby humans, this could spread rapidly and infect millions.

Mahapatra continued: "There's a potential of bringing out viruses that we no longer live with.

"Particularly if it's corpses of humans that come out, which have been infected with smallpox, for example.

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"We don't get routinely vaccinated for smallpox, so it could be a problem if those viruses are viable."

The whizz biologist learned many of his lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, about which he wrote the well-received book "Covid-19" earlier this year.

Mahapatra also cited a new study by Ohio State University about the range of diseases found in the Tibetan Plateau, where some of the world's oldest ice has stayed frozen for tens of thousands of years.

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"What they uncovered were a number of viruses, including 28 – from 15,000-year-old ice – that had never been seen before," Mahapatra said.

The immediate reaction to Dr Anirban's concerns is a well-founded skepticism that an outbreak in a small Siberian village could ever reach mainland Europe, never mind cause a continental or global pandemic on a scale similar to coronavirus. Well, could it?

"Absolutely", he said. "Obviously it depends on the threat, but COVID-19 started in a very specific place too.

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"If what's in the ice is a respiratory infection, like COVID-19, then yes it can cause a major outbreak.

"So, continentally yes – that's definitely a big possibility for some of the diseases we've seen come out the ice so far."

Because of the nature of global travel even during the pandemic, the researcher said, remote villages can spawn genuinely global pandemics.

Population centres which aren't particularly close to major ice sources, including the UK, are therefore unlikely to be spared.

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He added: "There are melting glaciers in various parts of the world – the Andes, the Himalayas, parts of the Alps – so this isn't just concentrated to the Arctic."

Among the many lessons we should learn from the current pandemic, he said, an awareness of just how serious low-probability events can be ought to stick in our minds.

That and being prepared.

Unsurprisingly, there's one obvious way to go about avoiding such an outcome, the scientist said.

"The bigger problem is climate change, which isn't going away.

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"We have to save the Arctic ice and the permafrost. We still have a window for doing that."

Humans could also use what Dr Mahapatra calls a "one-health approach" to policy – considering humans, animals and nature in the same breath.

Because as much as humans appear to be killing the planet and the creatures on it, some day they might just get their revenge.

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