A prehistoric virus recently revived in a laboratory does not “zombify” its hosts or threaten to unleash a new pandemic, although this is pointed out by users on social networks who magnify a widespread study and omit details of the investigation to misinform.
EFE Verifica received a query through its WhatsApp channel (+34 648434618) about the veracity of a headline that reported that scientists had revived a “zombie” virus trapped “in the permafrost.”
The term was misinterpreted by various profiles on Twitter, TikTok and Facebook, which associated the experiment with science fiction ideas and revived theories of a “new pandemic” or even an “apocalypse”.
“They have already begun to build a narrative that justifies control of rights, appealing to protect collective health…..made in WHO, WEF and gangs (sic),” says an Internet user on Twitter.
Similar messages are also shared in other languages like English and Italian.
FACTS: The study shows that European scientists did revive several prehistoric viruses, but this has nothing to do with a doomsday scenario. They are called “zombies” because they “resurrect” after thousands of years frozen in the ground, however, they do not infect humans but amoebas and the experiment was carried out in a controlled environment.
They call them “zombies”because they revive
The research that is taken out of context on social networks was disclosed in February of this year in the journal “Viruses”, a peer-reviewed publication to which some virology societies are affiliated, such as the United States, Spain or Canada.
Most of the scientists from the University of Aix-Marseille (France) participated in this study, but also others attached to German and Russian institutes.
The document states that a technical team managed to make ancient viruses infectious again after being inactive in permafrost, a layer of soil that remains frozen in the coldest regions of the planet.
This had a purpose linked to the study of climate change, since the researchers warn that the thawing of the permafrost can release microorganisms capable of returning to life and eventually becoming a danger to public health.
Reactivated viruses do not affect humans
However, the viruses that were managed to reactivate in the study only infect amoebas, contrary to speculation on social networks.
Specifically, the procedure managed to “make sick” species of “Acanthamoeba spp”, a microscopic and unicellular organism.
The scientists They argue within the study that it was conceived in this way to protect laboratory workers “from accidental infection” and thus prevent the spread of an unknown disease.
“Viruses have a tropism, that is, a specificity towards the type of cells and the type of organisms that they can infect,” explains Flor Pujol, a virologist and member of the Latin American Academy of Sciences, to EFE Verifica.
For this reason, not all viruses can affect humans. Some, for example, act exclusively on bacteria, plants, or animals, and it is considered quite unusual for them to switch hosts.
“To enter a cell they need to interact with a receptor, which is the virus key that enters the lock on the door of a specific cell,” adds Pujol metaphorically.
Its life time abroad cannot be estimated
The research report argues that the amoeba results “can be extrapolated to many other DNA viruses capable of infecting humans or animals.”
This is one of the main warnings of scientists.
However, another of the points that the document clarifies is that “it is still impossible to estimate how long these viruses could remain infectious once exposed to external conditions”, such as ultraviolet light, oxygen or heat.
It is not the first time that ancestral viruses have revived
In at least 2013 and 2014, researchers from the same group had already resurrected prehistoric viruses, as can be seen in an article in the scientific journal PNAS, the official publication of the United States National Academy of Sciences.
In that same magazine it is stated that scientists Russians, more than 10 years ago, also revived a plant from tissue found in the permafrost.
What are the risks?
The study argues that it is “legitimate to reflect on the risk that old viral particles continue to be infectious” and argues, among other things, why there is no universal treatment to treat viruses.
One of the project’s researchers, Jean-Michel Claverie, wrote in an article that “fortunately” very few people have so far lived in the inhospitable places where the permafrost is thawing, making it “very unlikely” to occur. an encounter between a virus and the host.
“A risk is always the combination of danger and exposure,” says Claverie.
Likewise, Catherine Dieleman, a biologist specializing in permafrost and professor at the University of Guelph (Canada), told EFE Verifica that although “thinking about the impact of frozen microbes can make our imagination run wild”, we must remember that they are not only does not know the ancient microbial life but also the current one “is minimally characterized”.
In relation to this, the UN published in 2020 an entry on its website about experts who warned that 1.7 million currently “undiscovered” viruses live in mammals and birds, “of which up to 850,000 could have the capacity to infect living beings.” humans”.
For his part, the Swiss scientist Beat Frey, a permafrost scholar, consulted by EFE Verifica, said: “I am not so convinced that ancestral viruses are capable of infecting humans.”
Can any virus cause a pandemic?
The answer is no, according to virologist Flor Pujol.
“Some viruses have a greater potential to generate a pandemic due to their mechanism, their transmission abilities and the possibilities that the person becomes infected,” he highlights.
What determines the potential of a virus to become a pandemic is the level of exposure that human beings have to it, explains the Colombian infectologist Jorge Cortés Luna.
In the case of a new virus, the doctor points out, it is true that the threat grows because humans do not have an immune response. However, there are other factors to take into account such as transmissibility.
“The more transmissible the virus is, the more efficient it is,” he argues.
In any case, Cortés Luna points out that “it would be necessary to know how much the prehistoric virus resembles a current virus.”
In conclusion, the prehistoric virus recently revived in a laboratory does not “zombify” its hosts or threaten to unleash a new pandemic, although this is pointed out by users on social networks who magnify a widespread study and omit details of the investigation to misinform.
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