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Giant virus: Is virus revived from permafrost sleep after 30,000 years a threat?

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A giant virus has awakened, resurrected after a deep slumber for over 30,000 years in Siberian permafrost. To answer the question posed by the title, the virus only infects single-celled organisms and doesn't bear any known resemblance to documented pathogens that would harm you or I.

At least, not yet.

According to a March 4 LiveScience report, as carried by Fox News, even though the Pithovirus will not infect multi-celled organisms, the fact that a dormant virus has been revived raised the possibility that additional, harmful viruses could be released from the icy north.

Explains Live Science:

…the new discovery raises the possibility that as the climate warms and exploration expands in long-untouched regions of Siberia, humans could release ancient or eradicated viruses. These could include Neanderthal viruses or even smallpox that have lain dormant in the ice for thousands of years.

Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France, said the discovery of this century-old virus erases the “non-possibility” that ancient viruses could become active again in a modern environment.

“There is now a non-zero probability that the pathogenic microbes that bothered ancient human populations could be revived, and most likely infect us as well,” Claverie said. “Those pathogens could be banal bacteria (curable with antibiotics) or resistant bacteria or nasty viruses. If they have been extinct for a long time, then our immune system is no longer prepared to respond to them.”

Researchers went back and took a second look at permafrost samples collected from Kolyma in the Russian Far East in 2000. The permafrost – frozen soil, rock or sediment – was layered along cliffs, and drillers bore into the landscape horizontally in order to extract samples that were tens of thousands of years old.

The team then took the samples and put them into contact with single celled organisms, such as amoebas, protozoan, hydras and paramecium.

When they did, researchers were shocked to see the virus activate within the host, and in some cases kill it.

But before we panic over the fact that microscopic pathogens may be infecting us on a pandemic scale, consider the fact that we are in constant contact with viruses every day.

“We are inundated by millions of viruses as we move through our everyday life,” said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “Every time we swim in the sea, we swallow about a billion viruses and inhale many thousands every day. It is true that viruses will be archived in permafrost and glacial ice, but the probability that viral pathogens of humans are abundant enough, and would circulate extensively enough to affect human health, stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point.”

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