The Heat Is Online

Melting Ice Caps Could Release Deadly Viruses

The Boston Globe, Reuters News Service, Sept. 2, 1999

LONDON - Deadly prehistoric viruses may be frozen beneath the polar icecaps and could unleash epidemics if they are released into the atmosphere, researchers said yesterday in New Scientist magazine.

Scientists at Syracuse University in New York found a plant virus in the Greenland ice pack that led them to believe that strains of influenza, polio, and smallpox could be buried in icy tombs that could be opened by a warm spell.

''We don't know the survival rate, or how often they get back into the environment,'' Tom Starmer told the magazine. ''But it certainly is possible,'' he said.

The researchers found the tomato mosaic tobamovirus while examining four cores extracted from the Greenland ice containing material between 500 and 140,000 years old.

They suspect strains of the frozen viruses they found are still infectious because of strong protein coats that allow them to survive in harsh environments.

''If you've got these things lying in the ice for a thousand years or more and their usual host has not had to deal with them, this may be a source of epidemics,'' said Alvin Smith, a virologist at Oregon State University.

He believes the discovery could also explain how identical viruses appeared after a 20-year interval on opposite sides of the United States. They might have spent years in the ice before emerging decades later.

The researchers are planning further research on ice cores taken from antarctic and arctic ice.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 09/02/99.
Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.