How drilling for oil may release a 700 year old virus

by Project Censored

A seven hundred year old virus was found in Canada by scientists at the University of California. This virus is found to be closely related to the modern day Gemini viruses. The virus found in the ice is easily capable of infecting a tobacco plant. In the Selwyn Mountains in the Yukon and Northern Territories generations of caribou lived. The virus was retrieved from caribou feces from researcher Eric Delwart and his team from the University of California. This demonstrates that if there were to be a dramatic climate change in the northern region, other viruses including the one found can be released back into the biosphere and infect organisms. Oil companies are planning on drilling in this region and pose a potential threat to our environment if the ancient viruses are released. Since these viruses have been dormant for so long, organisms have no chance to resist. There is a possibility that these dormant viruses will have no chance to thrive in competition with present day viruses. But the virus retrieved from the caribou feces had nucleic acids in well preserved healthy conditions. Is it ethical for oil companies to drill in the Arctic region even with the threat of releasing ancient viruses?


David Furguson, “700-year-old ‘zombie’ virus shows climate change could unleash ancient diseases,” Raw Story, October 29, 2014.

Student Researcher: Alexis Sharot, Indian River State College

Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College

Ethics Alert

Oil companies are planning on drilling in the Arctic region even though they can potentially release ancient diseases and organisms that we will possibly have no chance to defend against. The seven hundred year old virus, related to modern day Gemini viruses, can easily infect the modern tobacco plant. Is it ethical for companies to carry out their plans with such possible negative consequences?

The record for the oldest virus recovered is thirty thousand years old. Found by a French research team in the Siberia tundra, sixty percent of the genetic material does not match any modern day viruses. Seven hundred years ago there were different viruses than presently. “We saw evidence of replication in the leaves,” said Delwart. The possibilities are endless to what may happen if ancient viruses were released into the biosphere. The nucleic acid in the ancient virus sample was in healthy shape. Jean-Michel Claverie of the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine in France told New Scientist, “The find confirms that virus particles are very good ‘time capsules’ that preserve their core genomic material, making it likely that many prehistoric viruses are still infectious to plants, animals or humans.” The Black Death, a bubonic plague, was present seven hundred years ago and has been long eradicated since. This disease and others from the time period may be nothing similar to existing illnesses. This poses a dangerous decision by the oil companies.

There is a possibility that the antique diseases will have no chance to thrive.  Delwart cautioned that “the competition among modern viruses is already pretty intense. Ancient infectious diseases have missed out on hundreds, possibly thousands of years of evolution.” The present day humans’ immune system is stronger and more advanced than it was seven hundred years ago also. Over decades an organisms’ immune system develops antibodies that fight off current illnesses. If the ancient viruses are related to any modern day diseases then plants, animals, and humans have a greater chance of defending themselves. “But old viruses could only re-emerge if they have significant advantages over the countless perfect viruses we have at present,” says Delwart. There is no definite answer to what would happen if these ancient diseases begin to thaw in the snow. The ancient virus might thrive; beating out the modern day viruses. Another opportunity is that the modern day viruses would continue to succeed and the older disease would die out again.

With the oil reserves running low, in the absence of other alternative energy sources, it will become a necessity to find more locations to acquire crude oil. The Arctic region is one of the potential destinations to drill, but the risk of releasing dangerous diseases is controversial. According to the World Health Organization, “climate change is already a public health risk due to an increased incidence of tropical diseases, potential mass migrations and other factors. Now scientists are adding to that the risk that old diseases will return to haunt us again”.

Should the oil companies drill to save their businesses? An ethical approach is to think of the good for the majority, meaning that these companies should not drill in order to protect everyone as a whole. While risking their companies’ future, they should protect the biosphere and not risk releasing the ancient organisms. But what if ancient diseases will pose no threat to modern humanity? Should businesses carry out their search for oil? Claverie said that this discovery should also give pause to those who are hoping to capitalize on arctic warming to travel further and further north in the quest for oil.

Sometimes large companies need to put the safety of the earth and all its inhabitants in front of the bottom line, profit margins, and shareholders. Perhaps it would be the wiser to leave alone what nature has selectively concealed from us.