The Next Pandemic May Come from a Virus That Emerged from Permafrost’


In a world that is continually reshaped by the impacts of climate change, one of the most pressing concerns is the potential for new diseases to emerge from sources we once considered dormant or inert. One area of growing concern is the vast expanses of permafrost found in regions like Siberia and the Arctic Circle. As these ancient frozen landscapes thaw, they could release pathogens that have been trapped for millennia. French microbiologist Jean-Michel Claverie has been at the forefront of research into this phenomenon, exploring the risks that ancient viruses pose to modern humanity. This article delves into his research, examining the implications for public health and the environment, and discussing what steps can be taken to mitigate the risks.

Who Is Jean-Michel Claverie?

Jean-Michel Claverie is a distinguished professor of genomics and microbiology at Aix-Marseille University in France. His research focuses on giant viruses, a type of virus significantly larger than those typically studied in virology. Claverie and his team have been instrumental in discovering and characterizing these enormous viruses, which can sometimes be as large as small bacteria.

Claverie’s interest in permafrost viruses began with the discovery of the so-called “giant viruses,” such as Mimivirus, in unexpected places. These viruses were unlike any others previously known, with large genomes that contain genes typically found in cellular organisms. His pioneering work in this field has raised important questions about the potential for ancient viruses to resurface as climate change accelerates.

The Threat of Permafrost Thaw

Permafrost is a layer of permanently frozen soil found in polar regions, containing a rich trove of organic matter. For thousands of years, it has acted as a natural deep freeze, preserving everything from ancient plants to long-extinct animals like mammoths. As global temperatures rise, permafrost is beginning to thaw, potentially releasing not only greenhouse gases but also ancient pathogens.

Claverie and his team have been investigating the potential risks associated with this thawing permafrost. In their studies, they have discovered and revived viruses that had been frozen for tens of thousands of years. These viruses are not only still viable, but some can infect modern hosts, raising the specter of a new pandemic from an ancient source.

Reawakening Ancient Viruses

The work of Claverie and his team has focused on discovering and characterizing ancient viruses in permafrost samples. In a series of groundbreaking studies, they successfully revived several strains of giant viruses, demonstrating that these organisms can remain viable despite being frozen for thousands of years.

One of the key findings from Claverie’s research is that these ancient viruses have the potential to infect living cells. For example, the team discovered Pithovirus, a giant virus found in a 30,000-year-old permafrost sample. When revived, Pithovirus was able to infect amoebas, suggesting that similar viruses could infect other organisms or even humans.

This discovery raises critical questions about the potential for ancient viruses to reemerge as the permafrost thaws. If these viruses were to be released into the environment, they could potentially spread to human populations, leading to new outbreaks or even pandemics. This is especially concerning given the limited knowledge about these ancient viruses and the lack of immunity in modern populations.

The Potential Risks to Public Health

The idea of ancient viruses reemerging from permafrost is both fascinating and alarming. The potential risks to public health are significant, especially given the lack of prior exposure to these viruses in modern times. Unlike common viruses that circulate regularly among human populations, ancient viruses may find a human population with no immunity, making them particularly dangerous.

Furthermore, the diversity of these ancient viruses is largely unknown. Claverie’s research has shown that they can be incredibly complex, with large genomes and unique characteristics. This complexity makes it challenging to predict how these viruses might behave if they were to infect humans or other animals.

Another concern is the potential for these viruses to evolve once released into the environment. As they come into contact with new hosts and other viruses, they could undergo genetic changes that make them more virulent or adaptable to human hosts. This evolutionary potential underscores the need for caution and further research.

Climate Change and the Thawing Permafrost

The rate of permafrost thaw is accelerating due to climate change, with rising temperatures causing significant changes in Arctic and subarctic regions. This thawing releases not only ancient viruses but also large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, contributing to a feedback loop that accelerates global warming.

Claverie’s research has highlighted the urgency of addressing climate change to mitigate the risks associated with thawing permafrost. As the permafrost continues to thaw, the potential for ancient viruses to be released into the environment increases, raising the likelihood of new outbreaks or pandemics.

Addressing the Risks: What Can Be Done?

Given the potential risks associated with ancient viruses emerging from permafrost, it is essential to take proactive steps to address the problem. Claverie and other researchers have proposed several strategies to mitigate the risks:

  1. Increased Research and Monitoring: More research is needed to understand the diversity and behavior of ancient viruses in permafrost. This includes sampling and studying permafrost regions to identify potential threats and monitor changes over time.
  2. Enhanced Public Health Preparedness: Governments and public health organizations should prepare for the possibility of new pandemics arising from unexpected sources. This includes developing rapid response mechanisms, stockpiling vaccines and antiviral medications, and improving global cooperation in outbreak response.
  3. Addressing Climate Change: The root cause of permafrost thaw is climate change. Addressing this global challenge requires international cooperation and policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By slowing the pace of climate change, we can reduce the risk of ancient viruses emerging from thawing permafrost.
  4. Educating the Public: Raising awareness about the potential risks associated with thawing permafrost is crucial. Public education campaigns can help people understand the importance of addressing climate change and support efforts to mitigate its effects.


The work of Jean-Michel Claverie and his team has brought attention to a new and potentially dangerous consequence of climate change: the reemergence of ancient viruses from thawing permafrost. While the risks are significant, they can be addressed through research, public health preparedness, and concerted efforts to combat climate change. By taking proactive steps, we can reduce the likelihood of a new pandemic emerging from ancient sources and ensure a safer future for all.



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