- Covid-19 disease now affects, apart from China, more than 30 states where it has killed more than 40 people and 2,500 people infected.
- If the coronavirus creates panic, global warming could reactivate vanished viruses that are much more dangerous for humans.
New coronavirus looms over the threat of a pandemic. If people are terrorized, they may tremble harder in the future. The epidemic that started in December in the center of
China has already reached a peak in the country, where it has infected some 78,000 people, more than 2,700 of whom have died, Chinese officials said on Wednesday. It affects more and more countries, including in Europe: the Covid-19 disease now concerns, apart from China, more than thirty states where it has made more than 40 dead and 2,500 contaminations.
In a warming world, the face of tomorrow’s epidemics could be much more terrifying than that of the coronavirus. ” With the global warming, we observe a displacement of certain diseases that lived south to north, notes Jean-Michel Claverie, researcher at the Genomic and Structural Information laboratory (CNRS / Aix-Marseille University). We see it with dengue fever and
chikungunya, which are due to the fact that insects from tropical or warm regions are walking north. These animals bring with them the diseases of which they are a vector. Malaria, which is purely African at the outset, could return to mainland France.
Viruses gone but still alive
Even more unprecedented: the progression from north to south, due to the climatic disruption of the Antarctic areas and, mostly arctic, warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Permafrost (permafrost, in French), a permanently frozen geological layer composed of ice and organic matter, represents almost a quarter of the land in the northern hemisphere. The warming of permafrost could re-emerge viruses or bacteria dangerous to humans as we saw in 2016 in Siberia.
12 year old boy killed by anthrax and about 20 people were infected following the thaw of a reindeer corpse contaminated 70 years ago.
“The more the permafrost heats up over a significant distance, the more it brings to the surface things that existed and that were infectious a very long time ago, underlines Jean-Michel Claverie who discovered in 2014 with his team two new viruses, giant viruses, 30,000 years old, in Siberian permafrost. With our work, we were the first to show that this capacity for stasis [lenteur ou arrêt d’une matière organique] extends much further. We went up to 30 meters deep, which corresponds to the Neanderthal age. There are viruses that are still perfectly alive, which can be reactivated after 40,000 years of freezing in permafrost. “
The risk of diseases of the Neanderthal era
“The permafrost viruses, will they be able to pierce the immune system of men, wonders François Renaud, CNRS researcher, specialist in infectious diseases and vectors. To caricature, a virus has a key and the cells it will infect, a lock. The key must match the lock. If it doesn’t match, the virus will never pass. ” That’s what happened with the coronavirus that comes from an animal, probably the pangolin. There has been a transfer to humans and human-to-human contagion has occurred. “What we fear is that the key will become more and more perfected to get into the cells, it is adaptation,” continues François Renaud. The more sophisticated the key, the more the virus is transmitted.
No (too big) panic, therefore. Not all viruses frozen in the frozen layer of permafrost are harmful to humans. Many of them have the wrong key. And, in reality, we are unlikely to encounter RNA viruses, like the coronavirus, which are smaller and more fragile. They do not last long, even under normal atmospheric conditions, while DNA viruses, such as smallpox, which have a stronger box around the DNA, can be stored in the refrigerator at 4 ° C. They can survive without problems in permafrost.
Smallpox (the only officially eradicated disease in the world) could therefore be back, as would diseases of the Neanderthal era and mammoths. “We were able to discover that the people who were buried there died of smallpox, notes Jean-Michel Claverie. We are able to detect the presence of virus DNA by forensic methods. “
The return of smallpox
With the madness of industrial development in the Arctic and the floating nuclear power plant built by Russia, supposed to cover the electricity consumption of 100,000 people, the development of colonies on the coasts of the polar seas is increasingly likely. “We are going to start digging to reach the mineral layer since permafrost is humus,” says Jean-Michel Claverie. In the humus, there is no oil, gold or rare earths which are used for new technologies. “We are going to remove the equivalent of a million years of accumulated humus with the corresponding microbes to access these areas where there is money to be made,” he said.
One can easily imagine how smallpox could rise from the ashes in this scenario: an individual from a colony on the Arctic coast is infected with the reactivated smallpox virus and, if the symptom is not quickly detected, transmits it to d others, who in turn pass it on. And so on. “When I see what is happening with the coronavirus epidemic which is benign compared to what we have seen in the past, observes Jean-Michel Claverie. SARS Killed About 9% of People Affected, smallpox and plague 30% … There have been epidemics in human history that have killed half of humanity. We have arrived in such a state of globalization and connection with each other, that any glitch like the coronavirus is enough to disrupt the economy. “
Without even thinking of a scenario where a vanished disease whose virulence is unknown, would strike humanity, imagine for a second a future where smallpox would be back. A nightmare.