THE CHILLING IMPLICATIONS OF AN ANCIENT VIRUS DUG UP IN SIBERIA; How Deadly Diseases We Thought Were Consigned to the History Books Could Once Again Spread across the Globe, Killing Millions of People

Article excerpt

Byline: Professor Jonathan Ball

AT FIRST, oil worker David Smith thought he had something like the flu. He wasn't that surprised, as he normally caught some sort of bug after the flight from Moscow. He spent the first day back home in bed, head and muscles aching. He felt wretched, although he had enough strength to muster a laugh when his wife accused him of suffering from 'man flu'.

The next day, he felt a little better, and managed to take the dog for a short walk to the local pub. The next day, he thought, he would be back at work.

However, David never made it to work the following day, or even any other days, because when he awoke, he found his face, trunk and limbs were covered by a rash of small, hard spots.

His wife put some cream on them, all the time muttering that this was what happened if you spent your life helping companies drill for oil in Siberia.

This time, David was too weak to laugh, and by that evening, he had been admitted to an A&E department.

Initially, the doctors were mystified, but when the test results came through, they were astounded.

David Smith had smallpox, a disease that last claimed a life in this country in 1907 - that of a 19-yearold man, in the Balrothery Union in north Dublin.

An emergency was declared, and everybody who had come into contact with David was traced, isolated and inoculated. By the end of the next week, David had died. His wife followed a few days later.

Their deaths made headlines across the world, not least because other cases were beginning to emerge from as far away as Caracas and Sydney, all of which were connected to David's flight from Moscow.

By the end of the month, scores of cases had been reported. One of mankind's biggest killers was back.

Such an apocalyptic scenario is, thankfully, at the moment mere fantasy, but there is a small chance that one day it might come true.

LAST week, some of my fellow scientists 'brought back to life' a virus called Pithovirus sibericum, which had been lying dormant 100ft down in the Siberian permafrost for some 30,000 years.

As a professor of molecular virology, I find it fascinating that a virus could survive for so long.

We freeze all sorts of viruses in laboratories all the time, as it's the best way to preserve and store them, but the viruses we study are never more than a few years old - let alone thousands of centuries.

Before anybody starts to panic, the virus found in Siberia is harmless to humans, and is only really a problem if you are an amoeba.

However, as the project's leader, Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, declared, the reanimation of Pithovirus sibericum raises the disturbing possibility that other, far more dangerous viruses could emerge from the permafrost - the layer of soil that remains frozen for years on end, and today, some of that layer is starting to melt. As a result it's feared viruses that have been safely frozen for thousands of centuries could emerge.

But another way they could emerge is companies drilling through the permafrost on the hunt for resources such as oil.

'It is a recipe for disaster,' said Professor Claverie. 'If you start having industrial explorations, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from.' It's that danger that I describe in the doomsday scenario above, in which the smallpox virus is released during the drilling for oil in Siberia.

It is perfectly possible that an oil company could drill in an area where ancient corpses lie.

Some of these corpses may contain viruses such as smallpox - a disease that afflicted many of our ancestors all over the world. …