An international working group of subject matter experts from public health and academic institutions has been established to assess the potential emergence of climate-sensitive infectious diseases as a result of climate change.

This is concerning.

The group has been established because there are serious issues: under the ice in Antarctica deadly viruses and bacteria might be lying in wake for us and we must be prepared for the outbreak of potential climate-sensitive infectious diseases.

The Arctic, even more so than other parts of the world, has warmed substantially over the 20th century, especially in recent decades, causing concern amongst scientists that humans could be exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been largely eradicated or that humans have never encountered before.

Climate change is melting permafrost, soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, soils that have been the burial grounds for humans and animals that died of terrible diseases like the plague and small pox. As these soils warm, disease-causing viruses and bacteria could revive and potentially expose humans to diseases that have been eradicated or worse, ones we know nothing about.

It is already happening.

Anthrax scare

The BBC reports on a case in 2016 when a 12-old-boy in Siberia died and about twenty other people were hospitalised after being infected by anthrax.

The theory is that, over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass became trapped under a layer of frozen soil. A heatwave in the summer of 2016 melted the permafrost and exposed the carcass. As a result, the infectious anthrax was released into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which led to some humans being infected.

Scientists fear is that this won’t be an isolated case.

Bubonic plague scare

A year ago enough vaccine for at least 15,000 people were rushed to the remote area of Kosh-Agach in the Altai Mountains to combat a potential outbreak of bubonic plague after a 10-year-old boy caught the deadly disease while hunting with his grandfather in Siberian mountains. The boy cut himself with a knife while skinning a marmot, a large rodent known for carrying the disease.

The problem is that microbes can survive for tens of thousands, even millions of years.

“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France told the BBC.

In 2005 NASA scientists revived bacteria that had been in a frozen pond in Alaska for 32,000 years and in 2007 scientists revived an 8-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant in ice beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica.

The spectre of the bubonic plague, better known as the Black Death, and smallpox looms again.

“Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past,” Claverie warned.

Thousands of people died in smallpox and plague epidemics in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the permafrost melt in the cemeteries where the corpses were buried, these deadly infections could come back to life again.

This is one of the threats that the international working group will monitor.