Understanding and Responding to Global Health Security Risks from Microbial Threats in the Arctic

Event Type: Conferences and Workshops

When: 6 November 2019 to 7 November 2019

Where: Hanover, Germany

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An international workshop on "Understanding and Responding to Global Health Security Risks from Microbial Threats in the Arctic" will be held in Hanover, Germany.

This activity is being planned as a cooperative effort among three boards of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [the Polar Research Board, the Board on Life Sciences, and Board on Global Health] in partnership with the InterAcademy Partnership and the European Academies Science Advisory Council.

Motivation. A rapidly warming climate is leading to widespread thawing of permafrost and ice across Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Among the many concerns this raises are growing questions about bacteria and viruses that could possibly emerge from these thawing environments, raising infectious microbial risks for animal and human populations. This interest grew in 2016, when Siberia's Yamal Peninsula saw an outbreak of anthrax that infected dozens of people and killed more than 2300 reindeer, which some speculated may have resulted from anthrax spores released from a thawing reindeer carcass. Also in recent years there have been numerous instances where researchers have recovered from permafrost soil samples various fragments of DNA/RNA from diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, and the 1918 influenza virus. This raises concerns, given that many currently or previously populated high-latitude regions contain buried remains of humans and animals that died from such diseases. Studies have shown that bacteria and viruses frozen in the environment can remain viable for thousands and even millions of years; and this raises questions about whether permafrost may harbor microbes that are human pathogens, and for which modern immune systems have no protection. Given the very limited studies to date, it is difficult to characterize the magnitude and nature of these potential risks; yet understanding and preparing for "low-probability, high-consequence" events is one of the hallmarks of a robust public health protection strategy.

Workshop Plans. This workshop will bring together an international, interdisciplinary group of experts to explore what is known, and what critical knowledge gaps remain, regarding existing and possible future risks of harmful infectious agents emerging from thawing Arctic environments.