These prehistoric viruses are thought to have existed up to 400,000 years ago and lay dormant in the frozen remains of woolly mammoths found in Yakutia, Russia, where temperatures can drop as low as -55C. This research is carried out by the Russian Virology and Biotechnology Research Center.
The Russian lab, also known as Vector, aims to understand how viruses evolve by studying such diseases.
The project is supervised at a former bioweapons laboratory in Russia’s Novosibirsk region, but Vector is home to 59 maximum-security biolabs around the world.
Russian researchers hope to detect and revive ice age viruses, also called paleoviruses.
However, experts have expressed concerns about the research, describing the research as “risky” and admitting a lack of trust in the research facility.
Professor Jean-Michel Claverie of the National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Aix-Marseille spoke to the Times recently to express his concern.
said: “[Vector’s research] terrible I’m totally against it.
“[It] It’s very, very risky. Our immune systems have never encountered such viruses. Some may be 200,000 or even 400,000 years old.
“But ancient viruses that infect animals or humans can still be contagious.”
On relying on Vector’s biosecurity, the scientist added: “I’m not so sure everything is up to date.”
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The World Health Organization found no significant concerns in its most recent inspection of the facility in 2019, but there have been cases at the facility in the past.
In 2019, a gas explosion at a Vector facility caused a fire, which left a worker with third-degree burns from the explosion.
It also caused windows to break, but at the time, Vector said, “no work was being done with biological materials.”
Another incident at a Vector lab occurred in 2014 when a researcher died after accidentally pricking himself with a needle containing the Ebola virus.
In 1979, during the Soviet era, one of Vector’s military research facilities accidentally released spores of the anthrax bacteria in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg).
The deadly outbreak killed at least 66 people, but Soviet officials for years denied any such incident occurred and blamed the deaths on tainted meat consumption.
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Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, warned that even the safest laboratories can be breached.
He said: “Many of us who analyze and follow his actions are not convinced that the potential benefits in the very distant future necessarily outweigh the actual risks now.
“Accidents can occur even in generally safe practices.”