Will climate change release disease agents from melting permafrost and produce devastating epidemics? An article (1) promoted on Twitter (19 June 2017) suggests this might happen. Some of the material, dutifully cited by the author, appears to have been distilled from another, similarly slanted article (2). Both works contain conceptual flaws and factual errors. Watching myth information propagate and reverberate through the Twitterverse has been interesting and distressing. Responding on Twitter has achieved only partial success.
A recent anthrax outbreak was traced back to animals released from their permafrost tombs (1). However, this disease is caused by a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, not a virus. Anthrax may be lethal, but it is antibiotic treatable and very difficult, if not impossible, to spread in a person-to-person fashion. Anthrax outbreaks are cause for concern, but the chance this disease is poised to leap from the melting permafrost and produce a human pandemic is essentially zero. It is true that some bacteria, especially the spore-formers, persist for long periods under extremely harsh environmental conditions. Unfortunately, some of the diseases they produce such as botulism and tetanus (2) are also not contagious on a person-to-person basis. In addition, planet Earth has abundant reservoirs for these bacteria outside of the permafrost regions. Realistically, none of these diseases has pandemic production potential and the threats posed by them have been with us for a long time. Melting permafrost is not likely to dramatically increase the dangers they pose.
The 1918 influenza virus, sometimes called the Spanish flu, produced a terrible pandemic a century ago. However, infectious killer flu virus is probably not lurking in corpses buried in the Alaskan tundra. To date, only fragments of 1918 flu genes have been recovered from such samples. I cannot say there will never be an announcement that scientists have isolated infectious virus from a thawed cadaver. But the evidence in hand does not suggest this prospect is likely.
Blogger and Twitter user @Neuro_Skeptic has noted correcting errors in news articles can be challenging. The good news is that the specific error regarding 1918 flu virus recovery was edited in the BBC paper although some overstated implications about tetanus and botulism still stand (2). However, at the time this essay was posted (20 June 2017), the other article (1) had not yet been edited. Do the authors and editors read Twitter comments? I have no idea, but they have seen fit to correct some, but not all, of the problems pointed out in their articles.
Where will this end? Not all facts are equally reliable, but social media gives every one of them an equal opportunity to reverberate around the internet. In light of the situation, journalists, editors and readers will be best served by actually evaluating references or investing the time to check facts. For example, a cursory search through Wikipedia would reveal how botulism, tetanus and anthrax are, or are not, transmitted. The last line of defense against half-fact journalism is an alert reader.
(1) D. Galeon. 2017. Climate Change is Freeing Ancient Infections From Their Icy Prisons. Futurism, 5 May 2017. https://futurism.com/climate-change-is-freeing-ancient-infections-from-their-icy-prisons/
(2) J. Fox-Skelly. 2017. There Are Diseases Hidden in Ice, and They Are Waking Up. BBC, 4 May 2017. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up