Viruses in Siberia

Posted: October 20, 2015 in Articles
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Microbiologists recently discovered two giant viruses in the permafrost of Siberia, the frozen lands in northern Russia; Pithovirus Sibericum and Mollivirus Sibericum.

The viruses are, literally, giant. In viruses, there are types of genes called protein coding genes which basically determine how large the virus will be. In the Influenza A virus, there are 8 protein coding genes. In a few giant viruses they have found in Chile and Australia, there were 2,556 protein coding genes; giant viruses are very complex and large.

Right now the viruses are “sleeping”, but the scientists plan on “waking the viruses up” so that they can let them infect a single-cell amoeba to ascertain whether or not the virus would be harmful to humans.

That may make sense, but is it really justified considering past mistakes involving labs and viruses? According to Jeremy Bender of the Business Insider, there have been five serious infectious diseases which escaped containment in a lab. These were the 1977 HINI influenza strain, three small pox escapes in Great Britain from 1963-1978, the 1995 Venezuelan equine encephalitis outbreak, the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2007 Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK. Most recently, bubonic plague has infected several people in the US. In 2009, 2 mice carrying the plague went missing from a lab in New Jersey.

Do we really want scientists to wake up an unknown, potentially deadly virus?

On the other hand, some people believe that one day Siberia’s permafrost will melt. If that was the case, then these scientists would be acting quite intelligently; find viruses that might awaken when Siberia melts, figure out if they are harmful, and develop a cure. As I said before, scientists found two families of giant viruses in Chile and Australia (called the Pandoraviruses and Megaviruses) in water samples. These viruses were active; viruses are neither dead nor alive, and they can remain infectious for long periods of time; the ones in Siberia are “sleeping”, I assume, because of the layers of ice around them. Since the Pandoravirus and Megavirus were not sleeping, they could have spread throughout Chile, Australia, and beyond. In this case, discovery and investigation of the viruses was a very good idea, as it could prepare scientists for the potential spread of the viruses.

Overall, I think that the scientists’ research of giant viruses in Siberia should stop. There is no more chance of a virus in Siberia waking up under layers of ice than of one escaping a lab. And what is aggravating is that people have no say in what scientists poke around in.


  1. Cynthia says:

    I agree! Bubonic plague?!

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