The Next Pandemic: Disease X Looms as a Potential Global Threat

The COVID-19 pandemic may be over but the virus remains a global health threat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, COVID-19 is not the only pathogen that could cause a future outbreak or pandemic. WHO is launching a global scientific process to update the list of priority pathogens—agents that can cause outbreaks or pandemics—to guide global investment, research and development (R&D), especially in vaccines, tests and treatments.

One of the pathogens on the list is Disease X, which refers to an unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic. Disease X could be related to zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, such as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19. According to WHO, almost 60% of all human infections and 75% of newly emerging infectious diseases are of zoonotic origin.

Disease X could also be caused by a ‘pathogen X’, which could be an engineered pandemic pathogen, either as a result of incidental laboratory accidents or as an act of bioterrorism. Such a pathogen could potentially pose a global catastrophic risk.

The characteristics of Disease X are unknown, but it could be highly infectious, highly lethal, and have no effective countermeasures. It could also emerge from anywhere in the world and spread rapidly across borders. Therefore, it is important to be prepared for such a scenario and invest in R&D for novel RNA innovations, such as mRNA vaccines, that could be used against a future epidemic or pandemic threat, including unknown or as-of-yet unidentified pathogens.

Dame Kate Bingham, who chaired the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, warned that Disease X could be 20 times deadlier than COVID-19 and that it might already be on its way. She said that the world will have to prepare for mass vaccination drives and deliver the doses in record time. She also urged for more international collaboration and data sharing to prevent and respond to future pandemics.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist, said that the list of priority pathogens has become a reference point for the research community on where to focus energies to manage the next threat. She said that it is developed together with experts in the field, and is the agreed direction for where we—as a global research community—need to invest energy and funds to develop tests, treatments and vaccines.

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