What is 'Disease X'? Experts Warn of Potential Deadlier Pandemic
While most of the diseases on the list are already known to us, such as Ebola, SARS, and Zika, there is one entry that stands out with a chilling name: "Disease X."
The term Disease X is used by the WHO as a placeholder to describe a disease that is currently unknown to medical science as a cause of human infections. If such a disease emerges, whether it's a virus, bacterium, fungus, or another agent, there is likely to be a lack of vaccines or effective treatments available.
"This isn't just the stuff of science fiction," warns Dr. Richard Hatchett of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. "This is a scenario we have to prepare for. This is Disease X."
The WHO introduced the term Disease X in 2018, and just a year later, the world experienced the devastating COVID-19 pandemic caused by a new virus. This event highlighted the real potential for Disease X to become a reality.
"There is a genuine potential for a Disease X event to occur in the near future," says Dr. Pranab Chatterjee, a researcher at the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He points to recent cases of H5N1 bird flu in Cambodia as evidence of this potential.
Many public health experts believe that the next Disease X will be zoonotic, originating in wild or domestic animals before crossing over to infect humans, similar to Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19. However, there are other sources of diseases to consider, including the possibility of bioterrorism as a cause of the next pandemic.
"The possibility of an engineered pandemic pathogen cannot be ignored," caution the authors of an article in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology. They note that the release of such pathogens, whether through laboratory accidents or deliberate acts of bioterrorism, could lead to a catastrophic Disease X event.
Another potential source of Disease X could be "zombie" viruses that have been locked in permafrost or other frozen landscapes for centuries but are released due to the warming climate.
The other diseases on the WHO's priority list include Marburg virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Lassa fever, Nipah and henipaviral diseases, Rift Valley fever, and Middle East respiratory syndrome.
To prevent and effectively respond to an outbreak of Disease X, global medical experts are calling for increased funding to support surveillance and research into potential pandemic agents. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a stark reminder that outbreaks can have devastating consequences, and it is crucial to be prepared for the next one.
"The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first to wreak havoc on the world, and it will not be the last," emphasize the authors of the Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology article. "Thus, we need to prepare for the next outbreak as soon as possible."