New Castle News


March 6, 2014

Our Opinion: Discovery of ancient virus raises concerns

NEW CASTLE — In the 1951 science fiction classic “The Thing from Another World,” a spacecraft crashes in the arctic.

A group of humans investigates and discovers an alien buried in ice. Once thawed, the alien poses a threat to the humans, who eventually destroy it.

Several versions of “Thing” films have appeared over the years, with the key theme of a threat that’s thawed from the ice. They’re all stories, of course.

Well, maybe not anymore.

A report in a National Academy of Sciences publication says that a “giant” virus was discovered buried in 30,000-year-old ice by Russian and French researchers in Siberia.

The virus, named Pithovirus sebericum, is said to be harmless to humans. Supposedly, this version of virus attacks amoebas, not higher life forms.

That’s good news, unless you’re an amoeba. But the discovery has raised concerns about some of the consequences of climate change and related increased exploration in the arctic.

As arctic ice recedes and areas to the far north melt, there are growing efforts to recover its natural resources, including natural gas and oil. The changes are prompting more people and work crews to visit the arctic.

The discovery of an ancient virus that survived 30,000 years trapped in ice strongly suggests other microbes may be out there, waiting to be unleashed on the world. And the concern is that some of them could pose a direct threat to humans.

People have natural resistance to many diseases. Plus, there are vaccines available for others commonly found in the world. But one of the great fears of medical science is the appearance of a new strain of disease that can quickly spread and for which there is no natural immunity or vaccine.

This sort of disease could cause a pandemic and claim thousands of lives before medical science could develop a treatment.

The recent discovery of an ancient virus obviously means such concerns are more than science fiction flights of fancy. No one knows what else is out there in the ice, when it could be released or what the consequences might be.

This revelation might prompt concerns about arctic exploration, perhaps requiring isolation for people returning from certain missions. But with ice melting in large areas of the arctic region, it’s not clear if prevention is practical.

It’s possible there is nothing in the arctic ice that’s dramatically different than the microbes already found in the environment. But as the ice melts, medical researchers will be obliged to monitor the situation, to make sure no dangerous thing is out there.

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