The majestic creature had lain silently in the permafrost for more than a million years. But all it took was a curious scientist, tinkering with its long-dead body, to unleash a terrible new pandemic on the world.
No, it’s not the plot of a woolly mammoth sequel to Jurassic Park, nor another theory on the origins of Covid-19 — though the result of this scientific investigation could be horribly similar.
It’s the story of how, right now, Russian researchers are unearthing the bodies of long-dead mammals in an attempt to ‘reawaken’ Stone Age viruses.
Such viruses are thought to have remained dormant for millennia in the frozen remains of mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and other extinct species in northeast Siberia.
Like the virus that caused Covid-19, these prehistoric ‘paleoviruses’ are unfamiliar to the human body and, were they ever to find their way across the species barrier, catastrophe could follow. We would, after all, have no natural defence.
The woolly mammoths that roamed the Siberian steppes — until the last one died some 10,000 years ago — were fearsome creatures. The size of an elephant, they had sharp tusks that could spear a human unwise enough to get near.
For biologists, they seem to hold an enduring fascination. Last year, a project called Colossal was launched, aiming to tweak the genetic code of the mammoth’s closest living relative, the Asian elephant, to create a hybrid animal that could survive in the Arctic Circle.
This latest project — carried out by Russia’s State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector — aims to extract cellular material containing the viruses that killed these frozen beasts, and take it back to the lab for experimentation.
What could possibly go wrong? To conjure up the all-too-real nightmare scenario, you only have to hear the history of Vector.