Audioburst Search

Are There Zombie Viruses Like The 1918 Flu Thawing In The Permafrost?

Automatic TRANSCRIPT

Now we take you to the top of the world to the Northern Coast of Alaska where a cliff is crumbling and exposing ancient hunting site. There's another head back there. GonNa head right here head right their main body right here. Across the Arctic these prehistoric settlements are being unearthed. And the reason why is climate change as NPR's Mike Lean do cliff reports? Scientists are worried about something that could be lurking inside. These settlements Zombie pathogens up on top of an ocean. Bluff team of archaeologists is trying to pull off an emergency excavation. Here we have ribs and vertebrae other long bones. That's Dominique Tulu. Student helping to dig out hunting cabin. He's found a stash of animal bones at the other end of the house. Glenis on shows me where someone was storing fresh. Kills so this. Is this skin right here? At my feet are mummified seal. These seals are incredibly well preserved. You can see their skin their whiskers and this odsal paw. Oh Paul everywhere they dig. There's another surprise owing us. This is ridiculous. That's an Jensen the archaeologist leading the team they're out of coastal site near Ukiah that the town wants known as Barrow. They're rushing to save a piece of history before it falls into the ocean the cliff where the cabin is buried is going breaking apart because of climate change bird bird after bird after bird stack up in their skin. There there is the whole boy. Things are getting super stinky. The birds are thawing in rotting. That's right when students hands covered in black king bird flesh. Oh yeah hands. Oh my gosh. Oh now Johnson starts worrying about something. We can't see even flu virus. Oh norovirus yes. The team realizes there could be bird-flu hidden in these carcasses. You he all across the. Arctic climate change is causing the ground to warm soften like butter and there are a lot of things buried this ground. Not just animals but also their diseases tinkering take a rank colleen. You're GONNA drive yourself seriously. You need a break cooling. The major as a student she puts on gloves. Yeah you should probably do that hand. Because I mean a lot. Dunkin you at this point. In the excavation something even crappier happens. A human molar appears really human tooth. Now the site rat isn't a burial ground. There shouldn't be bodies right here but the two does make them pause because it reminds them that there aren't just animal diseases buried in the Arctic but also possibly human diseases. There are tens of thousands of bodies hidden in the Arctic permafrost. Jensen knows this better than anyone. I've gone a lot of burials. Yeah I've probably Doug as many variables was anybody. Some of the people buried up here. They died of smallpox others from the nineteen eighteen flu. Have you ever seen human remains like as well preserved as this seal? Oh Yeah Yeah Yeah. Yeah well the little the little frozen girl from rookie. Avic ARE NYACK. Yes she was. She was actually much better preserved than the seal. The little girl was just six years old. She was carefully wrapped in duct skin. Parka WITH A FUR-TRIMMED. She had this little sled with her. She died about eight hundred years ago. Water in around her burial I think and she was socialist. Basically encased in ice. We're able to take her out in a block of ice. Her body was so well preserved that Jensen shipped her to anchorage so doctors could do a full autopsy. One of those doctors was Michael's Zimmerman a paleobiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. I've done the number studies on frozen bodies in Alaska and when you open them up the organs role there and they're easily identified. It's not at all like Egyptian mummies where everything is shrunken and dried up. So it's easy to see what a person died up for the little frozen girl. It was starvation. But Zimmerman has seen infections embodies excavated from permafrost in one case a mummy from the Aleutian Islands. Looked like it had died of pneumonia and when he looked for the bacteria inside the body there they were frozen in time. We can see them microscopically in the in the lungs. There's this fear out there that once human bodies are exposed by melting permafrost. The pathogens in them could come back to life like Zombie pathogens. It's not unheard of anthrax. Can do it. It happened just a few years ago. In Russia a massive reindeer burial ground thought in the anthrax that killed. The reindeer woke up and started an outbreak. Were these new moon. You bacteria still alive. Zimmerman tested it. He took a smidge tissue from the lungs warmed it up fed it and tried to revive it. Nothing grew not one single cell though. I was happy because I didn't have to worry about catching anything. Zimmerman says he wasn't surprised. Bacteria were dead. Anthrax is a special case. In general bacteria that make people can't survive deep-freeze we're dealing with the organisms. That are hundreds of years old at least of the stuff. I work out of their frozen for hundreds of years and I really don't think they're ready to come back to life. I asked him if the same is true for viruses. I think it's extremely unlikely we've never been able to Culture any living organisms out of these bodies in nineteen fifty one a pathologist from San Francisco. Johan Halton decided to test this out. He went up to a tiny town near nome Alaska in dug up the bodies of five people who had died of the nineteen eighteen flu a virus that killed at least fifty million people Holton told. Npr Two thousand four that he cut out tiny pieces of the people's lungs and try to grow the virus in the lab. I hope that I would be able to isolate living virus. And they couldn't they ours is dead. And in retrospect of course maybe that was a good thing a good thing. But here's the crazy part. Holton tried to capture the virus twice. He went back to Alaska when he was seventy two. In Russian. Scientists like Holton have intentionally tried to revive smallpox from bodies in their permafrost. They recovered pieces of the virus but couldn't get that to grow either so maybe when it comes to Zombie Diseases. It's not melting permafrost. Me Need to worry about but what scientists are doing in the lab mike do cluff NPR news.

Coming up next