Melting Permafrost Could Thaw A Smallpox Graveyard In Siberia

A river in rural Siberia, taken from an airplane flight between Japan and Europe. Klaus Stiefel/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A few weeks ago, up to 40 people from the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia were hospitalized after a heatwave thawed permafrost, releasing a "zombie outbreak" of anthraxNow, the Siberian Times reports that experts fear the thawing could spell the return of the eradicated smallpox virus.

During the 1800s, there were repeated outbreaks of smallpox in a small Siberian town, with hundreds of bodies buried near the banks of the Kolyma River. Some 120 years later, this summer's heatwave has been melting the permafrost surrounding the town at a rate three times faster than usual. This has increased water levels in the river and is subsequently eroding away its banks where the bodies are buried.

While the risk at the moment is low, and with scientists aware of the issue for some time now, the current troubles of permafrost around the site and the Kolyma River are ringing alarms.

Scientists from Russia's Virology and Biotechnology Center (or Vector) in Novosibirsk are examining the bodies from the Siberian graves to assess the risk. Other researchers have been conducting similar investigations since the early 90s. While some of the bodies show signs of smallpox sores, only “some fragments” of smallpox DNA were found, microbiologist Sergey Netesov from Novosibirsk State university told the Barent Observer.

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Shown is the location of the Kolyma River 

The potential for an outbreak is obviously concerning. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 after a global immunization campaign led by the World Health Organization. After this victory of modern-day biomedicine, second and third generation smallpox vaccines have been developed, but not thoroughly applied to the world's population.

“It is a recipe for disaster," Netesov told TRT World. "If you start having industrial exploration, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from. If it is true that these viruses survive in the same way those amoeba viruses survive, then smallpox is not eradicated from the planet – only the surface.”

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