Daniel Kalla’s book “The Cold Plague” presents a chilling tale that killer pathogens may exist in lakes frozen beneath Antarctic ice caps. Remarkably, scientific literature so far has provided a great deal of credibility for Kalla’s fantastic page-turner.
Viable pathogens were initially discovered in the polar icecaps in the 1999 by a group of American scientists lead by Tom Starmer from Syracuse University in New York. The 13 viable virus strains discovered in 4 glacier sites in Greenland belong to a family of tomato mosaic tobamovirus (ToMV). The glacier sites range from 500 to 400,000 years old carrying various mixtures of ToMV strains. This finding presents a compelling theory that during the thawing of polar ice, ancient viral strains would be released from their frozen enclave, and into virus carriers worldwide (cloud, fog, rain) where they would mix with contemporary viral strains to produce novel viral strains. The mixed viral strains would be carried back to the glaciers via precipitation (snow) where they would be once again frozen into the glacier. This process is known as “Genome Recycling”, and is thought to be a key mechanism to preserve the genetic heterogeneity of pathogens during the course of evolution.
To date, it is predicted that there are an estimate of 1018 of viable microbes in polar icecaps globally. Among these microbes include human pathogens, such as influenza A, calciviruses and polioviruses. Many of these human pathogens have been “absent” or frozen for decades, centuries or longer, and have re-emerged as pandemics worldwide. It is very likely that the constant melting of polar icecaps due to global warming could accelerate the release of these frozen pathogens. As these pathogens have been absent for such a long time, our present generation could be considered a naïve human population that do not have resistance to these pathogens, and so could be vulnerable to future “cold plague” pandemics.
Global warming is a growing concern in our modern day society, which faces a gloomy future of more epidemics and pandemics due to the continual thawing of polar icecaps. As we stepped into year 2010, our society have indeed seen the emergence of many newer pathogens that have made the news including the killer H5N1 avian flu and SARS outbreak in Asia, and the emergence of the H1N1 swine flu in the Americas. It remains to be determined whether these pathogens originate from the melting icecaps globally, and whether these melting icecaps should be a health concern.