Neanderthal Virus Exposure in the 21st Century

Image courtesy of CDC.

Across the entire breadth of the Northern Hemisphere Arctic permafrost is rapidly melting. Nobody knows what strange pathogen is going to pop out from within tons upon tons of permafrost muck. More significantly, imagine the public anxiety if scientists detect viruses older than the human species Homo sapiens, which emerged 300,000 years ago. But Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) fossil remains have been discovered dating back 430,000 years. So then, what if viruses beyond the advent of Homo sapiens, such as Neanderthal viruses, suddenly spread across the planet?

There is some evidence that because of Neanderthal liaisons with Homo sapiens some amount of “passing of genetic code for coping with some pathogens” occurred. Neanderthal genes do show up in 2-3% of Homo sapiens genetic makeup. But don’t assume that means immunity from ancient viruses. Nobody knows what lurks within generation upon generation of permafrost.

A recent headline in The Guardian d/d Jan. 21st, 2024 highlights the story: “Arctic Zombie Viruses in Siberia Could Spark Terrifying New Pandemic, Scientists Warn.”

There’s a distinct possibility that zombie viruses could emerge from the depths at any time thanks to global warming’s impact on the Arctic, which is warming 2-4 times faster than the overall planet. The US portion of Arctic permafrost covers 85% of Alaska; it stays frozen year-round and has been around for at least 500,000 years, reaching depths of 1,000 feet.

Throughout the Arctic the deepest permafrost is 4,900 feet, and according to Nature Journal, Arctic permafrost stores nearly 1,700 billion metric tons of frozen carbon. For comparison purposes, according to Statista, current annual global emissions of carbon dioxide CO2 are 37.15 billion metric tons. So, permafrost is holding the equivalent of 46 years of current CO2 emissions.

Scientists likely lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering: How much carbon emissions will permafrost add to agriculture, industry, and transportation emissions, resulting in a whacked climate system that’s terrorizing society.

For the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, commensurate with the onset of the 21st century, and due to the overwhelming force of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, permafrost is suddenly drooping/melting very fast. As a result, modern-day society is on a collision course with thousands of years of muck, giga-tons of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and CH4, and reams of ancient viruses and bacteria. It’s a vast, dark mysterious ancient world in an icy vault that’s unfolding right before our eyes.

The oldest permafrost researched by scientists goes to a depth of 50 meters (165 feet), and it’s 650,000 years old, discovered and analyzed by a German, Russian, and English team of researchers, led by Julian Murton, University of Sussex found near the village of Batagay in eastern Siberia. (Source: Scientists Find the Oldest Permafrost Yet Discovered in Siberia, Arctic Business Journal, June 22, 2021)

The dearth of research on permafrost brings some level of nail-biting into play, known as “The Research Gap” or (1) a lack of understanding of potential harmful microbes in the permafrost (2) which microbes might survive, or not, freeze-thaw cycles (3) if plants and humans will be infected by ancient microbes. It’s important to know that nobody knows the answers to this vast mystery. Humanity is literally a sitting duck for whatever pops out of the muck.

Could a pathogen from thousands of years ago wipe out or inflict damage to modern-day society or to a particular region? The risks to humans of ancient viruses are much higher than the risks of “known pathogens.” Modern humans likely have no natural immunity to fight off prehistoric viral infections. Society could be blindsided without preparation.

Therefore, scientists are working to establish an Arctic monitoring network for early detection of ancient zombie viruses. Alas, this is but one more unfortunate fallout from excessive anthropogenic global warming. The Arctic warming 2-4 times faster than the world is exposing an unexplored underworld of ancient viruses. Nobody is prepared. Melting permafrost is under-researched: it’s massive; it’s happening now; it could be humankind’s biggest challenge, and nobody knows what to expect next.

However, the proposed Arctic monitoring network hopes to pinpoint early cases of disease threats, including facilities for quarantine and medical treatment of infected people. For example, what if an ancient zombie strain of polio, which is very contagious, raises its ugly head? Already, studies by the French National Centre for Scientific Research has discovered 13 frozen viruses in permafrost, including the Pandoravirus, which is 48,000 years old. (Source: Scientists Have Revived a ‘Zombie’ Virus That Spent 48,500 Years Frozen in Permafrost, CNN World, March 8, 2023)

The symptoms of Pandoravirus: (1) hair loss (2) flaky skin (3) bulging eyes (4) twitching (5) skin discoloration. An infected person is easily recognizable as a victim. But will it kill, maybe yes, maybe no, probably no.

According to the renown French virologist Jean-Michel Claverie: “A viral infection from an unknown, ancient pathogen in humans, animals or plants could have potentially ‘disastrous’ effects.” His research is published in a 2022 study (Source: Zombie Viruses Are Waking Up After 50,000 Years as Planet Warms, Bloomberg News, October 9, 2023).

Eventually, melting Arctic permafrost could become the world’s biggest headache, not only as a death threat but as a double threat. The threat is much more than zombie viruses. It’s also industrial contaminates that have accumulated in permafrost regions that have been neglected in existing climate impact studies. According to a very recent major study: “We identify about 4500 industrial sites where potentially hazardous substances are actively handled or stored in the permafrost-dominated regions of the Arctic. Furthermore, we estimate that between 13,000 and 20,000 contaminated sites are related to these industrial sites.” (Source: Thawing Permafrost Poses Environmental Threat to Thousands of Sites with Legacy Industrial Contamination, National Library of Medicine, March 28, 2023)

Additionally, as described in an article entitled, Alaska’s Scary Orange Rivers, Dec. 29, 2023: Alaska’s wilderness rivers are turning orange as thawing permafrost exposes toxic substances. Boots-on-the-ground research of the rivers found (1) very low levels of dissolved oxygen (2) pH factors up to 100 times more acidic than normal (3) electrical conductivity comparable to industrial wastewater. Hard to believe it’s the wilderness!

Additionally, the team of scientists in Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park discovered blackened, dark patches in the soil like fresh asphalt found throughout the normally pristine Brook’s Range. Water flowing via small drainage streams out of the blackened patches had pH factors so low it was like vinegar.

What then is the sensibility of a society that allows its planet to be poisoned? And for how long will life-supporting ecosystems, gradually being poisoned, remain viable? There is something horribly amiss when wilderness parks turn toxic, but who really cares is even more puzzling yet.

Consider the scenario and the repercussions as 25% of the exposed land surface of the Northern Hemisphere is covered by permafrost that’s rapidly melting. It is loaded with toxic industrial substances and thousands of years of accumulated viruses and bacteria.

Very significantly, the group of scientists conducted the “first ever comprehensive sampling of an entire watershed” on a six-day mission in an area of Alaska famously known as “the final frontier.” Here’s what they observed: Traversing the river, they found murky water over orange rocks where only a couple of years ago it was clear and full of fish, not now. At some spots the water ran half orange and half green and at others further downstream the river had the color and opacity of pea soup. Forrest McCarthy, a former US Antarctic Program coordinator, said: “Most climate change is subtle. This is like, bam!” The team could not find any fish or insects in some areas of the vast Range, saying: “Biodiversity just crashed.”

That happened in the wild where salmon are supposed to be running in streams as bears swat away mosquitos and gnats. But not what the scientists found. Science is only starting to get a handle on what’s happening up north. The scientists came away shocked and dismayed beyond belief. What else is happening throughout 25% of the Northern Hemisphere is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile, the US, Russia, China and others have big plans now that Arctic sea ice is a shadow of its former self. They want the oil; they want the minerals; they want the metals; they want the easier trade routes; they want it all. They have big plans, but apparently nobody has big plans for how to resolve 20,000 industrial contamination sites in the Arctic. It’s an open sore. (Source: Moritz Langer, et al, Thawing Permafrost Poses Environmental Threat to Thousands of Sites with Legacy Industrial Contamination, Nature Communications, March 28, 2023)

In the context of capitalistic growth to infinity, ecosystems throughout the Arctic are up for grabs. The US wants in, as do both Russia and China. They covet and practice gangster capitalism, a few bosses own pretty much everything. Will they be able to successfully navigate the challenges of toxic-laden ecosystems and zombie viruses, or will their new-found treasure trove of commodities take so much overriding precedence that zombie viruses and toxic-laden ecosystems are easily pushed aside? Until it’s too late. The End.

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at