French scientists ‘wake’ 30,000-year-old virus

French scientists said on Monday they had re-activated an ancient virus they found preserved in the Siberian ice. It may not sound like a good idea, but the scientists insist it is a warning about what unknown killer strains could be released by global warming.

French scientists 'wake' 30,000-year-old virus
French scientists (Not pictured here) woke up a really old virus this week. Bad idea? Photo: Expert Infantry/Flickr

French scientists said on Monday they had revived a giant but harmless virus that had been locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.

Wakening the long-dormant virus serves as a warning that unknown pathogens entombed in frozen soil may be roused by global warming, they said.

Dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, the virus was found in a 30-metre (98-foot) -deep sample of permanently frozen soil taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, near the East Siberia Sea, where the average annual temperature is minus 13.4 degrees Celsius (7.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

The team thawed the virus and watched it replicate in a culture in a petri dish, where it infected a simple single-cell organism called an amoeba.

Radiocarbon dating of the soil sample found that vegetation grew there more than 30,000 years ago, a time when mammoths and Neanderthals walked the Earth, according to a paper published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

P. sibericum is, on the scale of viruses, a giant — it has 500 genes, whereas the influenza virus has only eight.

It is the first in a new category of viral whoppers, a family known as Megaviridae, for which two other categories already exist.

The virus gets its name from "pithos," the ancient Greek word for a jar, as it comes in an amphora shape. It is so big (1.5 millionths of a metre) that it can be seen through an optical microscope, rather than the more powerful electron microscope.

Unlike the flu virus, though, P. sibericum is harmless to humans and animals, for it only infects a type of amoeba called Acanthamoeba, the
researchers said.

The work shows that viruses can survive being locked up in the permafrost for extremely long periods, France's National Centre for Scientific Research
(CNRS) said in a press statement.

"It has important implications for public-health risks in connection with exploiting mineral or energy resources in Arctic Circle regions that are becoming more and more accessible through global warming," it said.

"The revival of viruses that are considered to have been eradicated, such as the smallpox virus, whose replication process is similar to that of Pithovirus, is no longer limited to science fiction.

"The risk that this scenario could happen in real life has to be viewed realistically."

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French to try out high-speed Ebola test

French researchers will conduct trials with prototype Ebola diagnostic tests in Guinea in November, with results expected within weeks for speedy deployment, the head of France's Ebola task force said on Thursday.

French to try out high-speed Ebola test
The trial will include a prototype device unveiled last week, similar to a home pregnancy test, that may make diagnosis possible in under 15 minutes. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

They will include a prototype device unveiled last week, similar to a home pregnancy test, that may make diagnosis possible in under 15 minutes, a potential game-changer, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, who spearheads France's Ebola campaign, told journalists in Paris.

"It will make a big difference not to have to wait for six hours, but only 15 minutes," he said, referring to the time it currently takes for results to come back from the laboratory.

The biggest Ebola epidemic in history has claimed more than 4,900 lives in west Africa since the beginning of the year, according to the World Health Organization — almost all of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Earlier this month, France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) announced that a new 15-minute Ebola test has proved effective in high-security laboratory trials.

It has not yet been validated by regulators.

The diagnostic tool works by antibodies reacting to the presence of the virus in a tiny sample, which can be a drop of blood, plasma or urine, it said.

A European pharma company Vedalab is turning the prototype into a user-friendly kit called eZYSCREEN that will see a positive result yield a small stripe in a results window on the hand-held device.

The kit is simple to use in the field without any additional equipment, said the CEA.

Other pharmaceutical teams are also working on fast diagnostic tools for Ebola. They include Primerdesign, a spinoff company of Britain's University of Southampton, and Corgenix Medical Corp of the United States.

Work is also under way in several laboratories on developing a vaccine or cure for the killer haemorrhagic fever against which no drug treatment exists.

Delfraissy said the diagnostics experiments will be conducted by volunteers Doctors Without Borders (MSF — Medecins Sans Frontieres) under the supervision of experts from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm).

Some of the trials will take place at a new, French-sponsored health centre in Macenta in southeast Guinea.

Delfraissy said he hoped the tests would yield "reliable information by the beginning of December to allow the tests to be used in the field".