Unmasking Disease X: A Major Focus at WEF 2024

Disease X is a name given to an unknown illness that might trigger a future pandemic. Scientists say that this could be 20 times deadlier than COVID-19 and claim millions of lives across the globe. World leaders discussed this looming threat at the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2024 in Davos, Switzerland, and explored ways to prepare and respond to such a scenario.

What is Disease X?

Disease X is not a specific disease, but a placeholder for a new pathogen that could emerge from animals, humans or the environment, and cause a serious international public health emergency. The term was coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 as part of its list of priority diseases that require urgent research and development.

The WHO defines Disease X as “a serious international epidemic caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease”. It could be a novel virus, bacterium, fungus or parasite that jumps from animals to humans, or a known pathogen that mutates or recombines to become more transmissible, lethal or resistant to existing treatments.

Why is Disease X a major concern?

Disease X represents the unknown and unpredictable nature of infectious diseases, and the potential for a new pandemic that could surpass the impact of COVID-19. According to the WHO, Disease X could result in 20 times more fatalities than the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 5 million people worldwide as of January 2024.

The risk of Disease X is increased by several factors, such as:

  • Increased human-animal interactions due to deforestation, urbanization, agriculture and wildlife trade
  • Increased global travel and trade that facilitate the spread of pathogens across borders
  • Increased antimicrobial resistance that reduces the effectiveness of existing drugs
  • Reduced public health capacities and resources in many countries
  • Reduced trust in science and authorities due to misinformation and politicization

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the devastating consequences of an infectious disease outbreak on human lives, health systems, economies and societies. According to the latest data from Our World in Data, as of 22 January 2024:

  • More than 300 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally
  • More than 6 million people have died from COVID-19 or its complications
  • More than 5 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, but only 40% of the global population is fully vaccinated
  • The global GDP contracted by 3.5% in 2020 and is projected to grow by 5.5% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022
  • The global poverty rate increased by 1.3 percentage points in 2020, reversing years of progress
  • The global education disruption affected more than 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries

How are world leaders preparing for Disease X?

At the WEF 2024, world leaders held a panel session titled “Preparing for Disease X” to discuss the novel efforts needed to prepare healthcare systems for the multiple challenges ahead. The session was linked to the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience and the Collaborative Surveillance Initiative of the WEF.

Some of the key points raised by the panelists were:

  • The need for global collaboration and coordination to detect, prevent and respond to emerging infectious diseases
  • The need for adequate funding and incentives to support research and development of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for priority diseases
  • The need for strengthening health systems and capacities at all levels, especially in low- and middle-income countries
  • The need for engaging communities and stakeholders in building trust and awareness about health risks and interventions
  • The need for learning from the COVID-19 pandemic and applying the lessons to future preparedness and response efforts

The panelists also highlighted some of the ongoing initiatives and innovations that are aimed at addressing Disease X, such as:

  • The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which funds research and development of vaccines against diseases that could potentially become epidemics or pandemics
  • The Global Virome Project (GVP), which aims to identify and characterize all viruses in wildlife that could pose a threat to human health
  • The One Health Approach, which recognizes the interconnection between human, animal and environmental health and promotes multisectoral collaboration
  • The Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which supports countries to build their capacities to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats

Conclusion

Disease X is a hypothetical but realistic scenario that could pose a serious threat to global health security in the future. World leaders at the WEF 2024 recognized this challenge and discussed ways to enhance preparedness and response capabilities. However, more action is needed to translate these discussions into concrete actions that can prevent or mitigate the impact of Disease X.

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