The world is still recovering from a deadly coronavirus pandemic that killed almost seven million people — including around 230,000 in the UK.
But scientists have issued a chilling warning that an even more lethal ‘Factor X’ virus could be lurking in Earth’s permafrost, just waiting to be unleashed.
Worse still, they say climate change has made it more likely that a host of deadly diseases which have laid dormant for hundreds of thousands of years could be freed as the planet continues to warm.
That’s because the frozen soil – or permafrost – is teaming with a huge number of dormant microbial species, many of which scientists no little or nothing about.
It could also trigger the release of extinct diseases such as smallpox or pathogens that once wreaked havoc among our ancestors, experts warn.
Terrifying: Scientists have issued a chilling warning that a deadly ‘Factor X’ virus could be lurking in Earth’s permafrost (pictured in Siberia), just waiting to be unleashed
Reawakened: In 2022, scientists announced that they had revived a 48,500-year-old virus found in melting Siberian permafrost (pictured)
‘Deep down in the permafrost, there must be microbes – especially viruses but also bacteria – that were on Earth long before Homo sapiens existed.’
According to virologist Jean-Michel Claverie, of Aix-Marseille University, it may also be that ancient viruses which infected and caused the extinction of Neanderthals or mammoths also lay within this permafrost.
When asked what else could be hiding in the frozen tundra, he told Newsweek: ‘Viruses from extinct diseases such as small pox; the always-present anthrax, through spore-contaminated areas; and also the accelerated spread of diseases already known to [exist] in today’s Arctic such as tularemia, a serious bacterial infection, or tick-borne encephalitis.’
Scientists have highlighted six frozen pathogens they believe pose the biggest threat to humanity.
Only last year, a team of experts also announced that they had revived a 48,500-year-old virus found in melting Siberian permafrost.
It is among seven types of viruses in the permafrost that have been resurrected after thousands of years.
The youngest had been frozen for 27,000 years, and the oldest, Pandoravirus yedoma, was frozen for 48,500 years.
Although the viruses are not considered a risk to humans, scientists warn that other pathogens exposed by melted ice could be ‘disastrous’ and lead to new pandemics.
Permafrost is ground that remains permanently frozen even during summer months. Pictured, melting ice in the Arctic in spring
A warning shot came in 2016, when a heatwave in Siberia activated deadly anthrax spores which killed a 12-year-old boy and thousands of animals.
The term ‘permafrost’ describes earth that has been frozen for two or more consecutive years, although some parts of Siberia have remained that way for over 650,000 years.
Experts estimate that a quarter of the northern hemisphere sits on top of permafrost, but large areas are now melting as the world warms.
The planet is already 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, and scientists have warned that the Arctic could see ice-free summers by the 2030s.
Clarverie’s team first revived viruses in 2014, focusing for safety reasons on those which could only infect amoebas.
Since 2019 alone, he has uncovered 13 new viruses and has warned that an unknown, ancient pathogen could have ‘disastrous’ effects for the human race.
Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer below the Earth’s surface found in Arctic regions such as Alaska, Siberia and Canada.
It typically consists of soil, gravel and sand bound together by ice, and is classified as ground that has remained below 0°C (32°F) for at least two years.
It is estimated 1,500 billion tons of carbon is stored in the world’s permafrost – more than twice the amount found in the atmosphere.
The carbon comes in the form of ancient vegetation and soil that has remained frozen for millennia.
If global warming were to melt the world’s permafrost, it could release thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
Because some permafrost regions have stayed frozen for thousands of years, it is of particular interest for scientists.
Ancient remains found in permafrost are among the most complete ever found because the ice stops organic matter from decomposing.
A number of 2,500-year-old bodies buried in Siberia by a group of nomads known as the Scythians have been found with their tattooed skin still intact.
A baby mammoth corpse uncovered on Russia’s Arctic coast in 2010 still sported clumps of its hair despite being more than 39,000 years old.
Permafrost is also used in the study of Earth’s geological history as soil and minerals buried deep in Arctic regions for thousands of years can be dug up and studied today.