There Is No ‘Zombie Virus’ – Just a Dormant Virus That’s Been Revived


Nov 30, 2022


Image Credit: Representational Image/CDC

Unearthing microbes from the Siberian permafrost isn’t new. Researchers have been at it for many years now, amid concerns of melting ice caps releasing ancient and hitherto unknown bacteria and viruses to the world. But recent news of a set of viruses revived from the permafrost made headlines as a “zombie virus” — a misleading monicker that could have public health concerns.

To be clear, scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research recovered and revived 13 viruses from the Siberian permafrost, one of which is over 48,500 years old. They’ve laid dormant in the ice so far, but scientists have begun reviving them following mounting concerns of global warming thawing the ice and releasing potentially infectious agents into the world. The viruses are “zombie viruses,” then, only insofar as they have “reanimated” from a state of dormancy over millennia. But the story has taken a life of its own, with many speculating that the nature of infection that these viruses can spread is akin to a zombie outbreak.

Moreover, the findings aren’t peer-reviewed yet, which makes the reporting on the virus’ threat to the public premature. Here is how the researchers used the term “zombie virus”:

While the literature abounds on descriptions of the rich and diverse prokaryotic microbiomes found in permafrost, no additional report about ‘live’ viruses have been published since the two original studies describing pithovirus (in 2014) and mollivirus (in 2015). This wrongly suggests that such occurrences are rare and that ‘zombie viruses’ are not a public health threat.”

The part that’s new about the findings is that it’s the oldest known example of a virus that’s capable of returning to an infectious state. But this is a characteristic of all viruses: technically, all viruses are zombie viruses.

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There’s a raging debate among scientists about whether to even characterize viruses as living or dead at all — as they occupy a unique position in limbo between the two states. Ever since their discovery in the 19th century, they’ve been classified as everything from biological weapons, to poison, to non-living parasites. They show almost none of the hallmarks of life, save for one: they reproduce by making copies of themselves. Besides that, they don’t have cells, they don’t metabolize energy, and they cannot survive outside a living host for too long. And yet, they contain genetic material. The scientist E. Rybicki noted that viruses are “at the edge of life.”

This means that the sensation around the ancient virus uncovered in Siberia is misleading: it’s not so much the fact that the virus is a zombie, as it is that it’s capable of infection despite its age. This could be dangerous — but the important fact remains that we still know nothing about the nature of infections any of these viruses are capable of inducing.

“If the authors are indeed isolating live viruses from ancient permafrost, it is likely that the even smaller, simpler mammalian viruses would also survive frozen for eons,” Virologist Eric Delwart, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist.

Terminology matters. Previously, alarmist claims about the Covid19 vaccines leading to a zombie apocalypse contributed to dangerous vaccine hesitancy — and it was based on a CDC presentation that used a zombie apocalypse as a fictional scenario to train people on emergency responses. Research on Covid19 creating zombie cells created a similar panic — notwithstanding that “zombie cells” are a term given to aging cells that cause disease in the body.

Viruses in themselves are weird, undead, and inert in the absence of a host — and that’s what the permafrost contains. Giving it a name that singles out a particular virus as a “zombie virus” in an age of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news, then, is irresponsible at best — and dangerous at worst.


Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.


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