The danger that comes from the cold

“Corona and climate change have little in common”: this is the title of a commentary in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) at the beginning of April 2020. of course: one cannot compare the climate emergency declared by various cities with the current Pandemic Emergency. Nevertheless, there is an inner connection between the corona pandemic and the ecological state of the Earth. “New diseases such as Covid-19 are emerging because the ecosystem is out of balance”: for example, the NZZ in the print edition initiates an Interview with Gertraud Schüpbach, professor of Veterinary Public Health at the University of Bern.

Missing Virus Barriers

The Wochenzeitung (Woz) draws attention to the no longer existing virus barriers and refers to the American virologist Nathan Wolfe and his book “Virus. The return of epidemics”. If more and more people were to hunt wild animals in regions with a microbial diversity, many would inevitably come into contact with new pathogens: “pathogens that can devastate the entire planet.“Poverty in these areas is becoming” a very immediate problem for all of us, " Wolfe notes. The pandemics, writes Woz, " have a lot to do with globalization, which has fundamentally changed huge ecosystems. The world has been covered with roads and airfields, many natural virus barriers have disappeared due to accelerated mobility. The viruses know no boundaries, neither geographically nor in terms of species. They constantly mutate and take what just fits.”

The Bernese climate scientist Heinz Wanner draws attention to the fact that the corona pandemic is an expression of an ecological Composite crisis. Wanner lists several reasons: climate change, air and water pollution, monocultures, housing density and close caging of animals.

Ancient viruses and bacteria

However, little is currently written about pandemic dangers of a completely different origin. And since the probability of devastating epidemics has been underestimated in the recent past, as the current crisis shows, it is worth drawing attention once again to a dormant danger – a danger that has very direct to do with global warming. Again and again in recent years, there have been warning voices from the scientific community who have addressed the question: What would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have not existed for thousands of years or that we have never encountered before? “Maybe we’re about to find out. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and when the soils melt, they release ancient viruses and bacteria that come back to life,” says a report by the British BBC.

“The uninhabitable earth”

One person who has impressively documented this danger is David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor-in-chief of New York Magazine. Under the title “The Uninhabitable Earth” he published an article in 2017 and a book of the same name in 2019. The author describes the worst possible consequences of global warming. He has conducted Interviews with dozens of climatologists and other scientists and processed hundreds of studies on climate change. The result is a Text that offers information and scenarios that most people have hardly thought through in this way so far: “no matter how well informed you are, you are not sufficiently alarmed,” writes the author.

On the dangers of thawing permafrost, Wallace-Wells notes that the Arctic ice contained diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years – some of which perished before there were humans who could have been exposed to them. “This means that our immune system would have no idea how to ward off these prehistoric diseases if they were released again.”

Many unknowns in climate change

But it is not only in the Arctic that dangers lurk. Fearsome germs are also stored in Permafrost from more recent times. In Alaska, researchers have already found remains of the 1918 flu virus (Spanish flu) that infected millions of people and claimed the lives of up to 100 million people.

In 2016, a case was reported in Siberia in which reindeer and then humans became infected with anthrax. According to Professor Warwick F. Vincent of Laval University in Quebec, one of the most remarkable examples of such pathogens is the bacterium Anthrax. On the Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic, about 2,600 reindeer died as a result of infection with Anthrax bacteria and spores. Polarjournal.ch writes that the pathogen was probably released in the warm summer by thawing an old burial ground with reindeer carcasses; 36 reindeer herders were also infected. “It is just another example of the fact that there are so many unknowns associated with climate change. We know that we are on the verge of big changes in the North and this is another process that we should be watching very closely.”

Infections caused by extinct species ?

In an Interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau on 11.09.2016, the Infectiologist Christoph Stephan from the University Hospital Frankfurt said: “infections caused by spore-forming bacteria are of great importance in the animal kingdom. For example, when anthrax pathogens thaw and reach the surface, they can first infect animals, which then also infect humans-for example, when the spores settle in the fur and are inhaled by people who have contact with the animals. This can then develop into a pulmonary anthrax.“It is conceivable that even spores of long – extinct animal species – such as mammoths-could cause infections, because spores are” extremely resistant and can survive in frozen soils over a very long period of time.”

Concerns about global health risks

The Polar Journal.ch reported on 22.11.2019 of a conference with 55 scientists in Hannover in November 2019, when it went to the better understanding of the global health risks from Arctic microorganisms. “We know that Permafrost thaws and that people are increasingly coming into contact with thawing Permafrost, either directly through onshore activities such as hunting and research or indirectly through wildlife. And we know that Permafrost contains a variety of viruses and bacteria. And we also know that not all viruses and bacteria are harmful to animals and humans, and it is important to be able to distinguish the dangerous from the broader microbiome, the other microorganisms,” said Joshua Glasser, US State Department’s Office of oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.

Closely monitor indicators

For Susan Kutz, a wildlife veterinarian and professor at the University of Calgary, it is extremely important to be able to monitor these changes properly. Since the Eighties of the last century, it has been concerned with the effects of climate change on diseases among Arctic wildlife. In Polarjournal.ch it is quoted as follows: “unusual or pathogenic germs thawing out of Permafrost or ice could be the first indicators of a change in wildlife and animal health. Since the wildlife is distributed throughout the landscape and also grazes where Permafrost thaws, they could act as an indicator and early warning of what is happening out there before germs have an impact on humans.”

The scientists, writes Polarjournal.ch “in view of the already real and still lurking dangers for humans and animals as a result of thawing of permafrost soils” are very concerned. The Hanover conference had also shown that the opportunities to cope with the dangers were currently insufficient; therefore, rapid action was needed.

Unknown viruses from the Tibet Plateau

But it is not only in Alaska, the Arctic and the Siberian Permafrost that potentially dangerous germs are hidden. Thousands of years ago, various unknown viruses also froze in the ice of the Tibet Plateau. Virologists recently searched ice cores that climate researchers had extracted from the ice of the Tibet Plateau in 2015. The viruses from the old Tibets belonged to 33 different virus populations. Only four of these virus populations were already known to the researchers, the rest they defined according to the genetic endowment as previously unknown virus genera, as the spectrum of Science writes on 20.01.2020. The Science magazine also fears that the increasingly thawing soils and ice surfaces pose a hitherto unknown risk of infection for humans and animals. For some time now “not only anecdotal evidence has been accumulating that various diseases such as rabies, meningitis and Zoonoses (diseases communicable from animal to human and vice versa, J. M.) have increased in Russia since pathogens are increasingly emerging from thawing soils”.

So global warming probably carries far more dangers than rising sea levels, devastating storms, heat summers and droughts.