Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe


Just the Facts Ma’am

Neanderthal Germs Return to Bite Humanity in the Butt! Earthdate 2017.138

This is not the stuff of a retro science fiction movie with a really cool poster (I see a Neanderthal man carrying an unconscious but beautifully coifed cave women with germs that look like mini-flying saucers bombarding them both), but a fact of permafrost loss. Old bugs are reawakening as we lose polar ice. Anthrax, Smallpox, and things we don’t even know about are hitting the air when long-buried bodies are exposed. Really. 

It’s already happening. In August, 2016, a 12 year old boy living in a remote part of Siberia (not your usual Siberian hangouts), the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, died of Anthrax. Over 20 others were hospitalized. It looks like the anthrax came from the infected corpse of a reindeer that died over 75 years ago, that was exposed with the unprecedented loss of permafrost – normally permanently frozen ground. Two-thousand reindeer were also infected during the 2016 outbreak. Over a million were killed by anthrax earlier, in the 75-year-ago outbreak, and it is their bodies that have inadvertently served as reservoirs. With temperatures rising three times faster in the arctic as in the rest of the world, lots of long-buried bodies are thawing out.

I used to work in laboratories, so I’m familiar with this freezing of biological things, that you can then thaw out for later to use. For bacteria and viruses, this works a treat, especially when you have constant freezing temperatures (like permafrost used to be until we came up with global automatic defrost) and darkness. And just like in the laboratory, you can bring the material back to its preferred temperature, and presto change-o, it’s back in action. So, from this laboratory common-knowledge, once you realize we’re at risk of losing 40% of the permafrost that’s built up over the hundreds of thousands of years, it is no surprise at all that all kinds of nasties will be resurrected.

And that’s what we’re starting to see. Scientists found RNA fragments (another molecule in cells’ genetic machinery) of the 1918-19 Flu Pandemic, also called the Spanish Flu. ‘Hey, it’s an old flu, who cares,’ you say? Well, the first time around, Smallpox killed 20 – 50 million people, more than WWI. And remember, it’s a virus; antibiotics don’t work.

But wait, there’s more.


Scientists have found fragments of the DNA of the Smallpox virus in the remains of Stone Age people and 19th Century corpses, all previously frozen, in, all together now, ‘the permafrost’. And they found sores on bodies that looked like smallpox. There have been Smallpox epidemics, including one in Siberia in the 1890s. They did their best to bury the dead into the permafrost on the banks of the Kolyma River, but warm up the planet, and 120 years later these river banks are eroding, exposing bodies.

In case you’re not familiar, Small Pox is nasty. It killed 400,000 people in Europe annually in previous centuries. Besides death, it can also lead to blindness, repertory problems, and blindness, and of course disfigurement. And you guessed it, it’s caused by a virus.

Smallpox killed millions, leaving survivors scarred, disfigured, blind and with other lasting effects. The WHO declared the virus eradicated in 1980.

 Everyone used to get vaccinated against it, until 1972 in the US. Through great and collaborative efforts, Smallpox was certified eradicated by the WHO in 1980. So, what if it rears its ugly little virus head through our pulling the plug on the planet’s freezer? We don’t have much for fighting the virus once you have it. But we do have some stores of the vaccine just in case Small Pox ever does return somehow. But we only have about 35 million doses of the vaccine, whereas there are about 7.5 billion people on the planet as of 2017. And of course, the vaccine won’t help anyone already infected.

 Zombie Diseases

But things we already know about, such as the Spanish Flu, Smallpox and Anthrax aren’t our only threat. What about diseases we’ve never been exposed to? Think of the millions of Native Americans killed by the diseases brought by Europeans, as they had no immunity built up against them. Who knows what bugs we may soon face. In 2015, researchers reported a giant virus found in the Siberian permafrost that was still infectious — after 30,000 years. Luckily for us, that big old virus only infects amoebas. But this discovery confirms such pathogens exist. 

Permafrost in the High Arctic that has yet to melt.

So think of all this next time you buy something in plastic, or that is plastic. When you drive when you could have cycled or walked. When you could write a letter against the new drilling in the exposed arctic, when our governments subsidise fossil fuels. We are all one interlinked system, and it’s poised to possibly take a giant bite out of us.