Explained: What is ‘Disease X’ that WHO believes can cause future pandemics?


The World Health Organization (WHO) will update its list of priority pathogens, which will also include hypothetical ‘Disease X’ believed to be capable of causing future outbreaks and pandemics

As the world continues to tackle COVID-19, there are other pathogens that are capable of causing outbreaks and pandemics in the future.

To identify these, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that it will launch a global scientific process to update the list of priority pathogens “to guide global investment, research and development (R&D), especially in vaccines, tests and treatments”.

While compiling the list, scientists will also take into account evidence on ‘Disease X’, the United Nations (UN) health agency said.

What is ‘Disease X’? Why is there a need to identify pathogens that can cause outbreaks in the future? What is pandemic treaty proposed by WHO? Let’s take a closer look.

What is ‘Disease X’?

‘Disease X’ represents a currently unknown pathogen that can cause a serious international epidemic, as per the WHO.

In June this year, health experts in Britain had reportedly warned the UK government to be prepared for ‘Disease X’.

“We’re living through a new pandemic era, and ‘Disease X’ could be just round the corner,” The Mirror cited medical experts as saying.

The WHO had first published a list of pathogens in 2017 and conducted a prioritisation exercise the next year.

Currently, the list includes COVID-19, Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease, Lassa fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Nipah, Zika, and Disease X.

Why is the revised list needed?

The WHO has said over 300 scientists will study the evidence on over 25 virus families and bacteria and recommend a list of priority pathogens that require more research and investment.

“The process will include both scientific and public health criteria, as well as criteria related to socioeconomic impact, access, and equity,” the WHO website said.

For the pathogens included in this priority list, the WHO R&D Blueprint for epidemics creates R&D roadmaps, which frame “knowledge gaps and research priorities”, says the WHO website.

Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme explains that research and development (R&D) is required for an effective pandemic response.

“Targeting priority pathogens and virus families for research and development of countermeasures is essential for a fast and effective epidemic and pandemic response. Without significant R&D investments prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would not have been possible to have safe and effective vaccines developed in record time,” Dr Ryan said, as per WHO.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said that “this list of priority pathogens has become a reference point for the research community on where to focus energies to manage the next threat”.

The list will aid researchers to decide where to “invest energy and funds to develop tests, treatments and vaccines”, Dr Swaminathan added.

The UN health agency expects to publish the revised list in the first quarter of 2023.

Some pre-COVID-19 outbreaks

Many outbreaks in the past have stunned health agencies around the world.

In 2015, the Zika virus epidemic broke out and its cases emerge even today.

Ebola hit West Africa between 2014 and 2016. A recent outbreak of the disease was witnessed in Uganda with at least 75 cases reported in four provinces.

H1N1 swine flu originated in 2009 in Mexico and soon spread to the rest of the world. Currently, there is a vaccine for the H1N1 virus.

AIDS, caused by HIV, has claimed an estimated 35 million lives since it was first identified, notes Live Science website. The HIV epidemic, which raged globally through the 1980s, is still considered a stigma in many parts of the world.

Spanish Flu is one of the deadliest pandemics to affect the world. The 1918 influenza pandemic affected approximately 500 million people from the South Seas to the North Pole, reports Live Science.

Pandemic treaty

The announcement regarding an updated pathogens list comes as the WHO readies for the next session of talks in connection with a pandemic treaty.

In December 2021, the World Health Assembly had agreed to commence a global process to outline the pandemic treaty.

AFP reports that an intergovernmental negotiating body is making efforts that could lead to a global agreement on how nations prepare and respond to pandemic threats in the future.

The body will hold its next meeting in Geneva from 5 to 7 December.

Next year, the WHO member states will be presented with a progress report, and the final outcome will be ready for consideration by 2024.

Last week, the Bureau of the International Negotiating Body (INB) released the conceptual zero draft of the pandemic treaty, which critics say does not make the cut, as per AFP.

“Once an outbreak is detected, there are often a few critical hours to report, assess and act to stop the spread of a disease before it becomes virtually unstoppable,” the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, an independent coalition of statespersons and health leaders said.

“The current draft does not go far enough to call out the urgency needed to either prepare for disease X or known pathogens, or to respond at the early stage,” the panel argued, as per AFP.

With inputs from agencies

This article originally appeared on https://www.firstpost.com/ and was reproduced here with permission


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