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How great is the threat of an explosion of smallpox from the thawing permafrost in Siberia?

By Vera Salnitskaya
04 November 2015

Leading expert assesses the risk of 'waking up' this deadly disease currently eradicated, and warns that rising Russian levels of HIV brings a far greater risk.

Professor Sergey Netesov, 62, vice-rector of Novosibirsk State University, is one of the few experts who organised an expedition to investigate the possible presence of the smallpox virus in corpses from the time before its eradication. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

The fear is out there. Recently French scientist Professor Jean-Michel Claverie issued a warning that energy exploration in permafrost regions could unlock ancient viruses. Claverie, who runs a lab at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), received widespread international coverage for saying: 'If we are not careful, and we industrialise these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as smallpox that we thought were eradicated.'

He is also on record as saying: 'It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial exploration, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from. If it is true that these viruses survive in the same way those amoeba viruses survive, then smallpox is not eradicated from the planet - only the surface.'

He warned: 'By going deeper we may reactivate the possibility that smallpox could become again a disease of humans in modern times.' Scientists have also discovered four so-called 'giant viruses' in the thawing permafrost. 

Professor Sergey Netesov, 62, vice-rector of Novosibirsk State University, is one of the few experts who organised an expedition to investigate the possible presence of the smallpox virus in corpses from the time before its eradication.

Ruins of Zashiversk


Ruins of Zashiversk

Ruins of Zashiversk town, which was devastated because of smallpox epidemy in 1840s. Pictures: A. Okladnikov

He is a former Deputy Director of the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, also known as the Vector, a world-renowned research and production centre focusing on molecular biology, virology, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and epidemiology. He is currently the part time Chief Scientist at Vector . 

He makes clear he is less concerned about smallpox emerging from the thawing of graveyards with the disease's victims in Siberia, than with rodents carrying viruses which may infect people with immunodeficiency, for example those with HIV. And he is sad  that Russia is failing to prioritise preventive infectious disease education for teenagers, which is leading to a continuing rise in the number of HIV-infected people. 

Speaking exclusively to The Siberian Times, he explained: 'Stories about corpses with smallpox thawed from the permafrost first appeared in our country. The first bodies with traces of smallpox were excavated here, in Yakutia (also known as Sakha Republic). It was 1993-94, at the mouth of the Kolyma River. I went there in winter, and in summer our virologists had really found bodies with traces of smallpox. 

He stressed: 'The live virus itself was not found. But the signs, some of its markers, were found in the samples.' Apart from Russia, places where these finds may appear are Canada, the United States, notably Alaska, and Greenland, he added. 'It is quite possible - but now I am almost sure there cannot be a live virus.'

Sergei Netesov

Sergey Netesov: 'The danger is not just that there are a lot of HIV-infected people, but also that they may serve as intermediaries in the adaptation of the virus to humans.'  Vera Salnitskaya

His words suggest that the threat of a new eruption in smallpox from the thawing of permafrost across Siberia is overblown. 'Each freezing and thawing cycle reduces the number of viable viruses from five- to tenfold,' he said. 

'We managed to find only one more or less preserved body with signs of the virus and it was buried not in a grave but in a cellar, much deeper than a typical grave. The graves there  - in the permafrost area - are usually not more than one metre deep. Can you imagine what it is - to dig deep graves in the permafrost? It is very difficult to make A deep grave there. Therefore the tombs are close to the surface, and it is an area of every year freeze-thaw. The viable virus cannot be preserved there. 

'I think that smallpox is more likely to appear not from the permafrost, because it almost impossible, but from another source. The fact is that when in the 1990s my colleagues in the Vector Center and our colleagues from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta sequenced genomes of many strains of the Variola virus, a very unexpected thing was revealed.

'It turned out that their genomes are very similar to cowpox virus genomes. And cowpox virus, according to modern ideas, is not even cowpox, but poxvirus of rodents that live next to the cows. So the ancestor of the Variola virus of people is still alive. It is in nature, and it is impossible to eliminate it.

Smallpox vaccination in USSR

Smallpox vaccination in USSR in 1960s. Picture: 22-91.ru

'And since people are not vaccinated anymore, it is possible, as was once the case, that there will be a new transition of the virus from animals to humans. This probability is non-zero. Once it has been happened in history, it may happen again.

'For example, in the 1990s there was a case when one Siberian milkmaid had signs of infection similar to cowpox. She obviously caught it from a cow. Unfortunately, the samples were not taken immediately, and therefore we could not prove its origin. All such cases should be thoroughly investigated. Because these are the moments when we may receive an intermediate form of the virus.' He said: 'That is why we need to keep the samples of smallpox strains.'

Vector is one of only two official repositories in the world for the now-eradicated smallpox virus, the other being CDC. 'Since we tamed the beast, we do not have to destroy it to the end. Let it live in the laboratory, there is nothing terrible about this. It is kept there under 'seven locks', both in Russia and in the USA.' But he said: 'If a new smallpox-like virus appears in a developed country, the probability of a pandemic is close to zero. Even the probability of an epidemic is very small. Why so? 

'Because now the tracking system of such cases is very well placed. And if some unusual disease appears, it is immediately reported. What happens at this place is that strict quarantine is enforced.'

Vector


Vector


Vector

Vector is one of only two official repositories in the world for the now-eradicated smallpox virus. Pictures: Vector

He said: 'Over the past 30 years from the time when smallpox no longer exists, we actually became very advanced in the study of how this virus operates. And now we are prepared better for a potential reemerging of this virus. We have developed better vaccines than before AND drugs that can treat this infection. This would all have been impossible without work on the strains in the laboratory.'

Playing down the risks of it becoming a major killer if it reemerged, he said: 'Smallpox is an acute infectious disease. The spread of such diseases can be prevented by quarantine. If you try to imagine how smallpox could infect humans, it is more likely it will happen this way: HIV-infected people have immunodeficiency. It is much easier for them to become infected with the most innocuous things. 

'And if there is a reemergence of the smallpox-like virus in the human population from rodents, it is likely to be  through such people. The danger is not just that there are a lot of HIV-infected people, but also that they may serve as intermediaries in the adaptation of the virus to humans.'

In a startling warning, he said: 'HIV infection is lifelong. You cannot cure it completely. Cases of complete recovering are truly unique. Besides we do not have a vaccine yet. Only the prevention can help us here. For example, thanks to preventive measures, in the US the numbers of HIV-infected people has not changed since 2000. 

Children in hospital

Children in sanatorium for consumptives in Altai region. Pictures: Altai Post

'In our country, for some reasons it is considered that it is not necessary to inform teenagers about the danger to be infected by HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.'

'This is very wrong. If we do not take additional measures, the number of HIV-infected in Russia will continue to increase: already now, the number of patients increases linearly. For example in Novosibirsk now we have almost 25,000 HIV-infected. This is already 1% of the regional population. That is, when you, say, go by a commuter train, it is almost certain that at least one HIV-infected is there.'

Regarding smallpox, he said:  'A person with a weak immune system can become infected with the cowpox virus. The virus mutates very rapidly, and new strains may appear, threatening humanity. And if we destroy our stocks the virus - we will stay unarmed. If we are creating new types of vaccines, if we are working on new medicines - we are armed.'

He made clear: 'But the main threats nowadays, as I see, are not the revival of old viruses, nor artificially created viruses, but HIV and tuberculosis. The main problem of tuberculosis is that it can form caverns. And if this cavern is encapsulated, you will not get it with  antibiotics in a short time. It turns out that the treatment has ended, you seem to be healthy, run, jump, and then this encapsulated cavern opens again.

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Comments (2)

In Greenland, with the warmth re awakening things that have long been frozen, there has been an epidemic of tetanus, it's those ancient unknown unidentified virus cells that would have me worried.
bernard townsend, saint louis missouri, united states
06/11/2015 09:55
4
3
good
dkc, dcmkd
05/11/2015 21:10
1
2
1

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