Melting Glaciers Raise Risk of 'Viral Spillover'

Warming could make the Arctic 'fertile ground for emerging pandemics'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 19, 2022 4:18 PM CDT
Arctic Could Become 'Fertile Ground' for New Pandemics
Lake Hazen is the largest High Arctic freshwater lake by volume.   (Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia Commons)

The melting of Arctic glaciers could be terrible news for humanity in more ways than one, researchers say. Beyond rising sea levels, the melting raises the risk that long-frozen viruses could cause a new pandemic, researchers say in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers collected soil and sediment samples from Lake Hazen on Canada's Ellesmere Island; it's the largest freshwater lake north of the Arctic Circle, the Guardian reports. They found that the risk of a "viral spillover" event, in which a virus infects a new host species and keeps sustainably spreading, was highest in areas where glacial meltwater flowed in. They found that the spillover risk rose to a point and then declined in the soil samples, but it kept rising in lake sediment, per Science Alert.

The researchers used an algorithm to assess the chances of the viruses they collected infecting new groups of organisms. They're currently trying to determine how many of the viruses they found were previously unknown. The researchers say that while the risk of a pandemic emerging from the area is probably quite low as long as "bridge vector" species aren't present, the risk could increase as the area gets warmer. "Should climate change also shift species range of potential viral vectors and reservoirs northwards, the High Arctic could become fertile ground for emerging pandemics," they wrote.

"The only take-home that we can confidently put forward is that as temperatures are rising, the risk of spillover in this particular environment is increasing," said study co-author Dr Stéphane Aris-Brosou from the University of Ottawa, per the Guardian. "Will this lead to pandemics? We absolutely don’t know." (Last year, ice samples from the Tibetan Plateau yielded 28 previously unknown viruses.)

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