Could bacteria or viruses hidden in ancient Egyptian mummies trigger an epidemic today? The experts’ explanation

The ancient Egyptians were no strangers to disease, and specialist research has shown that they were affected by a number of infectious diseases, including smallpox, tuberculosis and leprosy.

Egyptian mummies PHOTO: ARCHIVE

For example, Ramses V, the fourth pharaoh of Egypt’s 20th dynasty, contracted smallpox, evidenced by the smallpox scars that marked his mummified body.

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared smallpox eradicated worldwide in 1980. However, is it possible that thousands of years later, recently unearthed mummies could unleash smallpox or any other disease from their bodies? Piers Mitchell, director of Cambridge University’s Ancient Parasites Laboratory and senior research associate in the Department of Archaeology, says it’s highly unlikely.

“Most parasite species are dead within a year or two without a living host to cling to. If you wait more than 10 years, everything is dead”Mitchell told Live Science.

For example, poxviruses such as smallpox can only reproduce in the cells of a living host, according to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Biotechnology Information. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis and leprosy also need living hosts to survive, according to the NIH.

DNA degrades over time

However, smallpox is spread by touch, from person to person, while tuberculosis and leprosy are usually spread through droplets from the nose and mouth, usually through sneezing or coughing, according to the NIH.

In the case of leprosy, it takes prolonged exposure to a sick person for it to spread. That’s because the two species of bacteria that cause the disease, known as Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis, reproduce slowly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another factor that decreases the likelihood of someone contracting a disease from a mummy is the degradation of DNA over time.

“With the help of the analyses, you can find that all the pieces of DNA of these parasites are quite short. Instead of being nice, long, healthy strands of DNA, they’re only 50 to 100 base pairs long. It’s like everything has been cut to pieces, and that’s because (the DNA) degrades and breaks down. Nothing can be viable once the DNA has broken down, nothing wakes up”Mitchell said.

Parasitic intestinal worms live a long time

However, some parasitic intestinal worms, which are distributed through feces, live longer than other organisms, and not all of them need a living host to survive.

However, these are not a big concern either.

“They can be much more persistent and last for a number of months or sometimes several years. And even if one of these ancient organisms were still alive, the masks, gloves and other protective gear worn by researchers to prevent contamination of the mummies would also prevent them from contracting or spreading pathogens,” explains Piers Mitchell, director of Cambridge University’s Laboratory of Ancient Parasites.