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Explained: What Is Disease X? Why Are Top Experts Warning Of A Deadlier Pandemic?

In June last year, health experts in Britain had reportedly warned the UK government to be prepared for ‘Disease X’ amid reports of cases of poliovirus being detected in sewage samples in London, monkeypox, Lassa fever and bird flu in the recent years

Mock drill for COVID-19 preparedness
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Days after the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that Covid-19 was no longer a global emergency, marking a symbolic end to the pandemic that claimed at least 7 million lives worldwide, experts fear that a new 'Disease X' might cause an even deadlier pandemic.

According to the WHO, “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.” The term was coined in 2018. 

To prevent and combat an outbreak of Disease X, medical experts worldwide are clamoring for an increase in funds to support the surveillance of, and research into, potential pandemic agents, according to a report by New York Post.

“The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first to wreak havoc on the world and it will not be the last,” wrote the authors of the Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology article. 

What is Disease X?

In June last year, health experts in Britain had reportedly warned the UK government to be prepared for ‘Disease X’ amid reports of cases of poliovirus being detected in sewage samples in London, monkeypox, Lassa fever and bird flu in the recent years, Reuters reported.

“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 that could cause a "deadly pandemic" 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 latest entry to the list is "Disease X."

What could be the nature of Disease X?

According to a report by New York Post, some public health experts believe the next Disease X will be zoonotic, meaning it will originate in wild or domestic animals, then spill over to infect humans. So far, the deadly outbreaks of Ebola, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 were also zoonotic in nature. 

Some also believe that  bioterrorism could be the cause of the next pandemic, the report said.

“The possibility of an engineered pandemic pathogen also cannot be ignored,” said the authors of a 2021 article in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

“The release of such pathogens, either through laboratory accidents or as an act of bioterrorism, might lead to a disastrous Disease X as well and has been remarked as a global catastrophic risk,” the authors added.

Another possible source could be “zombie” viruses that have been locked in permafrost or other frozen landscapes for centuries, but are released by a warming climate, the report further said.

What is WHO's warning?

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday issued a warning, saying the world must get ready for the next pandemic which might be even deadlier that Covid-19.

WHO chief Ghebreyesus’s warning comes at a time when Covid-19 cases are somewhat stabilising around the world.

"The threat of another variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains, and the threat of another pathogen emerging with even deadlier potential remains,” he reportedly said.

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