What Is Disease X And Why Are Health Leaders Talking About It?

The WHO director-general is talking about the next pandemic at the Davos summit.
Disease X Cells. 3D Render
Disease X Cells. 3D Render
BlackJack3D via Getty Images

This piece was originally published on August 7, 2023 with updates added on January 18, 2024.

Health leaders are avidly discussing the possibility of a pandemic caused by “Disease X” at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

To be clear, this is not a real disease – yet. It’s a placeholder name for a future pandemic which could come along.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is encouraging countries to talk about how to prepare for the next major outbreak.

What is Disease X?

This is just a name for any subsequent disease which could hit humans next, it’s not a specific illness just yet. It refers to a disease which has no vaccines or drug treatments, and therefore could cause a major outbreak.

It’s not yet clear which of the animal viruses identified by scientists as potential threats could cause a pandemic.

But the likelihood of there being another pandemic is higher than it used to be, due to climate change. Animals are moving habitats due to shifting temperatures, which means humans are more likely to interact with them and pick up new diseases.

Disease X was added to the WHO’s list of pathogens which are a top priority for research in 2018 – pre-Covid – alongside diseases like Ebola.

WHO has warned any future pandemic could trigger 20 times more fatalities than Covid – and Covid killed around seven million people worldwide.

What is most likely to become Disease X?

Scientists have their eye on bird flu right now.

At least 30,000 seabirds died of the disease last summer, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, following the outbreak of a new strain.

It seemed to spread to some mammals, too.

Four humans contracted a mild infection in the UK in the first half of 2023. Health agencies are still monitoring people who work with birds right now in case it starts to spread quickly among humans.

What is being discussed in Davos?

The WHO is looking for countries to be better prepared than they were when Covid hit, so that the world is not hit by the same level of devastation.

On Wednesday, WHO said preparing for Disease X could help save lives and reduce costs.

The organisation’s Director-General ,Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “Of course, there are some people who say this may create panic. It’s better to anticipate something that may happen because it has happened in our history many times, and prepare for it.”

He added that the WHO has already started a pandemic fund and a “technology transfer hub” in South Africa to enable the production of vaccines to tackle vaccine inequity.

Other countries may look for more international cooperation, increasing hospital capacity and adopting new technologies.

Surveillance of diseases, especially new and emerging ones, is key, too.

How are UK scientists preparing for potential pandemic-inducing pathogens?

A team of more than 200 scientists announced last August they were working in a secretive, high-security lab, called Porton Down in Wiltshire, run by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on a “100 Days mission”.

It’s part of a global effort to create a vaccine within 100 days of a new pathogen which could trigger a pandemic – which would be a world first.

The development of the Covid vaccine was exceptionally fast, but it still took a year (as opposed to the usual five to 10 years).

Porton Down is one of just a few labs around the world which has the facilities to research potent viruses and bacteria, like Ebola.

The site was previously focused on Covid and testing the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants.

Now, they also research high-risk pathogens like bird flu, monkeypox and new Covid variants, known infections which are evolving (and developing antibiotic-resistance) as well as something unknown – just as Covid once was.

Working with pharmaceutical industry, scientists and doctors, they are looking to test the effectiveness of a vaccine.

UKHSA chief, Professor Dame Jenny Harries, told Sky News in August that the team are trying to prepare in case a new pathogen breaks through.

She said: “Hopefully, we can prevent [a pandemic]. But if we can’t and we have to respond, then we have already started developing vaccines and therapeutics to crack it.”

Touching on the 100-day target, she added: “This is a really high ambition. But for some viruses, it is definitely possible.”

She also told BBC News: “We say it [Covid] was the biggest public health incident for a century, but I don’t think any of us think it’ll be a century before the next.”

Have they had any success so far?

The scientists have already created the world’s first vaccine against Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.

It’s spread by ticks and has a fatality rate of 30% and has been detected in Europe. It could continue spreading due to climate change.

But, the site now has early stage clinical trials starting for a vaccine and have 24 volunteers who will try it out


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