30 September 2023
Just in case

Just in case: Scientists revived only non-threatening ‘zombie viruses’

A study found ancient viruses frozen for tens of thousands of years in the Arctic permafrost could become health risks; however, researchers did not “reawaken” such dangerous viruses in the process.

In March, many Chinese internet users expressed their fears in response to the news about French scientists who sampled frozen viruses that are 27,000 to 48,500 years old and warned that they can be reanimated to threaten human health when the frozen soil is thawed due to climate change.

This reaction came after a couple of news outlets created social media videos about the “zombie virus” with eerie music and creepy images.

A video from Sichuan Observation, the official Douyin account of the Sichuan Radio and Television, for example, used an ominous sound in the background and emphasized that the revived viruses have managed to infect amoeba in the study.

It also mentioned that the youngest sample was found in the stomach and hair of a mammoth, presumably to point out the extent to which the scientists have gone through to collect the samples.

Another video from Red Star News inserted clips showing apocalyptic images including fictional human zombies. Quoting a news article by Euronews, the video reported that viruses trapped in the permafrost could potentially spread to humans and animals.

One of the users implied in the commenting section that there could be another round of virus spread after the COVID-19 pandemic, and this could result in a “zombie crisis.”

Another user said, “What the heck are those scientists doing? I just want to live a peaceful life.”

A similar comment reads, “The Pandora’s box has been opened… I don’t know why those stupid scientists revived the zombie virus.”

Many others also criticized the actions of the scientists. However, those fears and concerns seem to be unsubstantiated.

Annie Lab looked into the original study titled “An Update on Eukaryotic Viruses Revived from Ancient Permafrost,” published on Feb. 18 in an academic journal called Viruses.

Although the article, authored by French researcher Jean-Michel Claverie and his team, discusses the reactivation of 13 “zombie” viruses, the process involved the strains that could infect single-celled organisms such as amoeba only.

It means those revived viruses are not a threat to “crops, animals, or humans.” They cannot possibly infect the human body.

However, the study also warned that the results suggest that human-infecting zombie viruses could remain infectious for tens of thousands of years, as shown by the amoeba-infecting viruses.

It mentioned the case of an anthrax outbreak that affected reindeer in 2016 as an example. The case took place when the thawing of a permafrost active layer revealed an animal carcass that was infected with anthrax.

The release of the anthrax spores has been considered as one of the factors which could have possibly caused the outbreak, affecting both reindeer and even humans in northern Russia, according to its description.

Similar reactions to the same news on English-language social media was also fact-checked by Newsweek.