Scientists Are Attempting to Extract Prehistoric Viruses in Russia

In spite of many blockbuster sci-fi movies, Russian scientists are digging into the permafrost to examine viruses.
Marcia Wendorf

On February 17, 2021, Russian state laboratory Vektor announced that it was attempting to extract prehistoric viruses from the remains of long-dead animals recovered from melting permafrost.

Scientists also stated that the Arctic is, alarmingly, warming twice as fast as the global average, and this situation not only puts local wildlife at risk but also leads to the releasing of the carbon stored in the permafrost.

Besides potentially creating a beachfront property in Arizona, global warming is thawing out areas of the Siberian region of the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. Thanks to the thaw, animals such as ancient cave bears and wolves have recently been emerging from their permafrost tombs.

Everything I know I learned from movies

According to the statement from Vektor, the scientists will probe the permafrost and examine the remains of mammoths, elk, dogs, and other prehistoric animals that have long been under the snow for possible bacteria or viruses. 

Apparently, the Russian scientists don't watch a lot of movies because if they did, they'd know from John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing, that a parasitic extraterrestrial life-form that assimilates, then imitates other organisms is capable of hiding in permafrost. Just ask that doomed Norwegian expedition.

Scientists Are Attempting to Extract Prehistoric Viruses in Russia
"The Thing" Source: Universal Pictures/Wikimedia Commons

For those of you who haven't seen the movie: The Thing is about a group of scientists at an American research station in Antarctica who realize that "The Thing" could be inhabiting any one of them. They soon devolve into mutual suspicion, paranoia, and conflict, before deciding that the only safe thing to do is to blow up the research station and everyone in it.

The Russian scientists could maybe learn from their American counterparts who screen The Thing every February to mark the beginning of winter at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station.

Another fan favorite suggestion for the Russian scientists could also be Peter Hyams' 1997 film, The Relic, which would offer them insight into how to defeat a "South-American lizard-like monster who is on a killing spree in a Chicago Museum."

Scientists Are Attempting to Extract Prehistoric Viruses in Russia
"The Relic" Source: Commons

In The Relic, evolutionary biologist Dr. Margo Green arrives at her job at the museum to find crates that have just been delivered from a ship that was filled with dozens of dead bodies and several severed heads.

What really upsets Dr. Green, is that the crates are filled only with leaves and a creepy stone statue of "Kothoga", a mythical forest monster.

Of course, the museum insists on going ahead with its annual gala, which later on provides the monster with lots of people wearing tuxedos and evening gowns to feast on.

What's really emerging from the permafrost?

Scientists Are Attempting to Extract Prehistoric Viruses in Russia
Source: Sergey Fedorov/The Siberian Times

The specimens the Russian scientists are working with all come from the collection of the Mammoth Museum at Russia's North-Eastern Federal University, located in Yakutsk. The remains include a 42,000 Tagagay foal that was found in 2018, a 4,450-year-old Verkhoyansk horse that was found in 2009, a 32,200-year-old woolly mammoth found in 2013, and an 18,000-year-old puppy found in Siberia.

A story in The Daily Mail described the Vektor State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology as having been "... a Cold War biological warfare research plant" and the article went on to describe Vektor's bona fides as having "... once produced smallpox on an industrial scale, and still hold[ing] stocks, while also weaponizing deadly Marburg [a variant of Ebola]."

Website IFLScience has reported that in 2019, there was a considerable explosion at the Vektor facility, and in 2004, one of its scientists died after accidentally sticking herself with a needle that contained Ebola.

Not leaving out zombies

The Daily Mail also stated that "... experts have previously warned that delving back into the past could pose a threat from zombie infections." It's nice that we mentioned zombies, and you've got to wonder whether these Russian experts have seen Danny Boyle's 2002 movie 28 Days Later.

In that film, environmental activists break into a laboratory and attempt to free monkeys being used for testing. One chimp, who is infected with a highly contagious, rage-inducing virus, infects one of the activists who goes on to infect all the other activists. Duh, if you want "rage-inducing" just go to your local Walmart.

Of course, in the real world, "zombie infections" refer to viruses that can lay dormant for hundreds, or even thousands of years, only to "come back to life" and infect people with an unknown disease.

Digging into the permafrost for a cause

Also stated in The Daily Mail article is the fact that the Russian scientists would be attempting "whole genome sequencing" of the now-extinct animals. The experts even hope "to glean the 'epidemiological potential of currently existing infectious agents.'"

Scary as it might be to look at it from a science-fiction point of view, Russian scientists' work with viruses  prehistoric or not  is, in fact, quite crucial for the future of humankind. 

And all joking aside, as the permafrost keeps melting at this pace, we may be faced with a whole host of dangerous viruses and the sooner we tackle this, the better. 

There's also a second vaccine

Finally, it has also been reported that Vektor is developing Russia's second COVID-19 vaccine called EpiVacCorona. Come on, couldn't they come up with a better name? CBS News has reported that 38% of Americans say that they will no longer order a Corona beer and that people are conducting internet searches for the "corona beer virus."

If any Hollywood producers are reading this, I'd like to pitch in a movie idea about a virus lurking in beer that ravages Spring Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. Now, that would be a blockbuster for sure.


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