As NASA prepares to carry out a sample-return mission on Mars, scientists talked about the possibility of a pathogen from the Red Planet causing an outbreak on Earth. For experts, the lessons that the coronavirus and other disease outbreaks have taught the world would help prepare Earth for a similar scenario.
Currently, the number of coronavirus confirmed cases in various countries is steadily increasing. As the outbreak worsens, local and international agencies are beginning to understand the systems needed to prevent the disease from spreading. One of these is the need to implement rapid and accurate diagnostic tests to detect the virus.
Bringing Back Samples From Mars
For some scientists, these kinds of lessons can be applied if an outbreak on Earth caused by diseases from Mars occurs. This terrifying scenario was conceptualized based on NASA's plans to carry out a sample-return mission on Mars. For this mission, the agency's rover will collect rock and soil samples on Mars.
These samples will then be brought back to Earth to be studied for traces of microbial life. If the samples contain life, then there's a chance that they could also have pathogen-carrying organisms. Since the nature of these potential Martian pathogens is yet to be discovered, there is currently no way of knowing how they would react to Earth's condition.
Outbreak From Martian Pathogen
In a worst-case scenario, the pathogens within the samples taken from Mars would react adversely to their environment, which could eventually lead to a disease outbreak. According to Catharine Conley, NASA's former planetary protection officer, this is the reason why it's important to study how diseases interact with their environment.
"As with historical infectious disease epidemics, the coronavirus that's spreading currently is another example of why it's so important to understand the consequences of interacting with environments humans rarely contact and then distributing widely whatever [they] picked up," she said according to Space.com.
Lessons Learned From COVID-19 Outbreak
For John Rummel, another former planetary protection officer for NASA and a senior scientist for the Search Of Extraterrestrial Life Institute in California, Earth should first implement important procedures and systems before proceeding with a sample-return mission. The scientist noted that these systems should be based on the lessons currently being learned from the current COVID-19 outbreak.
"I think that it might be instructive to consider the climate of concern that accompanies the current situation with coronavirus," he explained. "I think that the challenge for a Mars sample return activity is to be open about precautions taken in the face of ignorance, which is what we have … when we discuss life on Mars."