The rise of ‘cli-fi’ and real zombie viruses

Geoff Potjewyd
By Geoff Potjewyd

Read our expert take on “zombie viruses” and if climate change could induce a re-emergence of ancient viruses that could pose public health issues. Written by Geoff Potjewyd, our Scientific Content Writer.

We have seen the risks of climate change played out in films, TV, and other media for decades now. Whether you have a penchant for “The Day After Tomorrow,” “WALL-E,” or the tale of Superman’s home world, Krypton, you’ll have been somewhat entertained and horrified by the consequences of acting too late on factors causing climate change.

More recent dramatizations of climate change sci-fi — or cli-fi — have shown how climate change may impact human health. In particular, the defrosting of an ancient disease from the permafrost in “Fortitude” bears a stark resemblance to concerns over the re-emergence of viruses from melting permafrost. This has been a real-world research consideration for around a decade, and, as described in a recent study, a 48.5 thousand-year-old virus has been identified in permafrost samples.

The virus discovered is just one of 13 “zombie viruses” isolated from seven Siberian permafrost samples. The number of strains identified suggests climate change-induced re-emergence of ancient viruses could be a public health issue if it is not addressed.

Permafrost problems

How are these viruses able to survive for thousands of years?

The permafrost is perfect for the preservation of biological material, as it doesn’t allow oxygen or light to permeate and degrade the material. Due to human activity and subsequent climate change, rising temperatures are causing permafrost thawing at increasing depths, potentially releasing the biological material of bygone eras. This deep permafrost layer thawing has already been linked to the return of anthrax epidemics that have devastated reindeer populations.

The unearthing of old viral strains is likely to affect populations drastically and risk an outbreak of epidemic or pandemic proportions as immunity hasn’t been developed. The economic and social consequences of a viral pandemic are of course clear in people’s minds in light of COVID-19.

A wider climate change impact

Climate change-related health concerns spread wider than zombie viruses. The most obvious risk is posed by the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. These weather changes lead to pollution, injuries, displacement, and damage or contamination of water and food supplies.

Rising global temperatures are not only a risk to spreading diseases trapped in permafrost. Longer and higher seasonal temperatures are increasing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, malaria, and dengue to previously unaffected areas such as Europe and Southern Australia.

Addressing the climate change issue

Although it is a fictional version of the Cordyceps fungus that — due to climate change — can adapt and infect humans in “The Last of Us,” the impacts of the climate emergency are real and potentially devastating. The melting permafrost is at the very least a clear warning of the consequences of the human impact on the environment not being addressed; we could all do without a zombie virus outbreak!

Although taking precautionary measures against a re-emerged virus can help dampen an outbreak’s impact, meeting the core issues of climate change will reduce the magnitude of the consequences. Acting now to cut emissions, innovate using renewable energy, and expand healthcare access to those hit hardest by climate change is essential to meeting the crisis head-on.

Discover more about how the pharmaceutical industry and ramarketing are combating climate change through sustainability initiatives.

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