Antarctic ice and Viruses. Are we ready?

Updated: Jul 10

-by Raoul Popescu.

What are viruses?

Recent events showed us the importance of being aware and learning about the surrounding entities and the way they can affect our day to day life routine.

Prof. Dame Sarah Gilbert and Richard Dimbleby Lecture BBC One says : "This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”, when she was talking about the ongoing pandemic.

Having this in mind lets take a closer look to the submicroscopic universe. Viruses are invisible (due to their submicroscopic sizes) entities (not microorganisms since they do not posses mechanisms for self-sustaining) that reside all around the globe, even before the existence of the first mammals. They do not have a certain role in the ecosystem, but despite this, all mammals and even bacteria have encountered some of them, through a process called infection. Usually, the virus enters an organism by infecting certain cells after that it multiplies itself using the infected cell components, since they don't have the necessary mechanisms.

During our lifetime, we may be infected by different types of viruses, and since some of them are not that harmful to us, we won’t notice their presence in our body.

What is permafrost?

It’s any earth material at or below 0 degrees Celsius for 2 or more consecutive years. Earth material can be anything: organic soil, mineral soil, sand, gravel. Usually the permafrost is found in northern hemisphere, in places with temperatures under 0 degrees Celsius for most of the time.

Why the permafrost and why ancient viruses?

Dating back to the early ice age, the livestock and microorganism and even viruses, went through a process called cryopreservation. According to some studies, the contents of the atmosphere froze through time, including viruses and microorganism. This caused the pathogen or less pathogen viruses to be able to survive for tens of thousands of years. Some scientists like to refer to the permafrost as a frozen archive.

A concerning event

Not long ago, an event that can be easily described as alarming, in which the permafrost, thawed in the scorching summer heat, released a pathogen bacterium causing deaths in reindeer population nearby. The bacterium trapped in the ice for more than decades, emerged from this ancient structure, and spread like wildfire. Even if it wasn’t a big concern for the human beings herding the reindeer population, dozens of people caught the disease, including an unnamed boy who died. During the studies made in the northern peninsula of Russia, where the incident happened, scientists tried to figure out what to do about microorganisms trapped in the glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost, which will be released as the world warms and the ice thaws.

Although the outbreak was brought under control, we cannot contain our fear that this story could’ve been an harbinger of what is yet to come. As Earth’s icy regions thaw, long-dormant microorganism as well as infectious pathogens (like viruses) will inevitably emerge.

Source: The icy mountains near Svalbard, Norway, an arctic archipelago that’s rapidly changing due to climate change. Johnny Harris / Vox

How likely is it that these ancient viruses which have been trapped for millions of years are gonna defrost and be „brought back to life”? Should we pack our things and move to another hemisphere? Not yet.

Even if the chances for this ancient enemies to be alive and able to induce infectious activity after emerging from ice are pretty big (and if we consider, the molecular structure, which provides viruses the upper hand when it comes to resisting harsh conditions versus multicellular organisms or unicellular organisms) we shouldn’t worry that much. For this sub microscopical invaders to be fully revived, there will be required a lot more than frost resistance.

A perfectly matching host is also required most of the time for them to survive after defrost. If this condition is not fulfilled the viruses cannot infect a host and multiply.

Pandemic preparedness. The actions that must be taken.

The problem is not if it is going to happen, but when is going happen, and for that we must take action.

The continuous climate changes are inevitable and constantly growing, so we need to do the same with our actions towards preserving permafrost and preventing a new pandemic outbreak. Bill Gates stated clearly and in detail during global conferences, TED, 2015: „ we are not ready for the next epidemic”.

Has anything changed since then?

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been calls for the world to be better prepared for the next pandemic. These calls are driven by a sense that the outbreak could have been foreseen and prevented, or that the spread could have been more effectively contained causing less social and economic disruption and averting deaths.

But frankly, can we actually do something about it?

It is encouraging to see widespread calls for more financing, a reform of global governance for health-related crises, and fresh thinking around global public goods. But let’s first take a look at what pandemic preparedness is and what types of investments it requires.

Pandemic preparedness is a continuous process of planning, exercising, revising and translating into action national and sub-national pandemic preparedness and response plans. A pandemic plan is thus, a living document which is reviewed regularly and revised if necessary, for example based on the lessons learnt from past outbreaks or a pandemics, or from a simulation exercise.

Preparedness starts at country level and comprises many elements.

To summarize them: we need to have strong and resilient health systems, in particular primary care, to facilitate detection of disease outbreaks, surveillance systems and laboratory capacity to detect both human and zoonotic disease outbreaks, mechanisms are needed for coordination across sectors for prevention and preparedness, legal frameworks and regulatory instruments to support both outbreak prevention and the deployment of countermeasures and there is a need for well-functioning supply-chains as well as adequate stockpiles of essential goods and equipment.

Haven’t we learnt anything from the past?

Former pandemics such as Polio, current pandemics such as COVID-19 or HIV, all have highlighted the weak spots of humanity and its systems. For humankind to once prevail against those dangers, there is a need of deep understanding of the enemy as well as a need of trust among people, which we lack. Equipment's, laboratory facilities and other material instruments are not the problem; the world is developing day by day and new technology arises, while the required psychological features lack in most of the people due to lack of trust in authorities and medical experts, propaganda, superstitions and personal beliefs. For humanity to prevail in dark times, trust and unity must represent our core, then, the human race will stand victorious against anything.