Jan 19, 2024 - Health

Disease X: Scientists, leaders prepare for a possible virus far deadlier than COVID

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of World Health Organization (WHO),

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a panel session at World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 17. Photo: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Global health experts are sounding the alarm on the need to prepared for the hypothetical emergence of a deadly new pathogen, dubbed Disease X.

Driving the news: A panel of healthcare experts gathered Wednesday during the World Economic Forum's 2024 annual meeting to discuss the prospect of Disease X, bringing renewed attention to the concept.

  • Some experts believe a possible Disease X could be 20 times deadlier than COVID-19, CBS News reported.

What is Disease X

The World Health Organization first coined the term Disease X in 2018, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the "Preparing for Disease X" panel on Wednesday.

  • According to the WHO, the term "represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease."
  • In 2022, the WHO convened over 300 scientists to look into 25 virus families and bacteria and create a list of priority pathogens that should be further researched. The list included Disease X, to indicate an unknown pathogen that could cause a "serious international epidemic."

Between the lines: "'Disease X' is a placeholder for unknown disease," Tedros told the panel, noting that COVID-19 could even be considered the first Disease X.

  • "And it may happen again," he added.

How will Disease X emerge?

While it's ultimately unknown where Disease X will come from or when it will emerge, some experts have theories.

  • Disease X is likely to be a respiratory virus, Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CBS News.
  • The virus could already be in circulation among animals but hasn't yet transferred to humans,
  • "That could be bats like COVID-19, it could be in birds like bird flu, or it could be some other type of animal species, swine for example," he said.

What kind of preparations are needed?

Preparing for Disease X will require a "renewed commitment" to strengthening primary healthcare, as well as research and development, to test drugs and other tools, Tedros told the panel.

  • The COVID pandemic offered lessons for the future, Tedros said, highlighting the difficulties some countries faced in managing patient surges in hospitals, doing contact tracing, and shoring up supply chains for things like oxygen.

What's more: Michel Demaré, chair of the board of AstraZeneca, warned the panel that many countries are not spending enough money on preparing their health systems for the next pandemic.

  • "It's not just about spending more, it's also spending smarter," he said, noting that OECD countries spend on average only 3% of their health systems' budgets on prevention.
  • "Obviously, if you spend so little on prevention, you end up spending the majority of your budget on hospitalization and only treatments," he said.
  • Demaré also emphasized the need for countries to share data transparently, floating the idea of creating international libraries of diseases and vaccines.
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