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Future global pandemic could be ‘hiding in melting ice’: Biologist

Published: Updated:

Dead human and animal carcasses infected with deadly diseases could trigger the next global pandemic, a leading biologist 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 told the Daily Star.

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This has traditionally not posed a threat to societies. However, as human-caused climate change causes shifts to global temperatures – leading to rapidly melting ice sheets and glaciers – these could expose the diseases contained within.

Consequently, this could lead to diseases infection societies and cause widespread infection and lead to widespread outbreaks.

History points to this being a real possibility.

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 a new biological threat, which left a 12-year-old boy dead and hundreds more severely infected in the region’s worst outbreak for 75 years.

Dr Mahapatra, a biologist at an American research society, said this could potentially become a more common occurrence.

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

“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.”

The risk is heightened due to temperatures Arctic rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world due to ‘polar amplification’ - greater climate change near the pole compared to the rest of the hemisphere or globe in response to a change in global climate forcing, such as the concentration of greenhouse gases.

What is even more concerning, said the biologist, is the the toxic permafrost could also carry plagues most people haven’t been exposed to for many years - and are therefore less immune to.

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.

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

Read more:

UN panel says world dangerously close to runaway warming due to human activity

Heatwave threatens to accelerate ice melt in Greenland

Britain and US agree partnership to tackle new pandemics