Disease X: The Enemy We Don’t Know, Are We Ready?
What is Disease X?
Disease X is a hypothetical, unknown pathogen that could cause a future epidemic or pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) added Disease X to its list of priority diseases that require urgent research and development. The idea behind Disease X is to prepare for the worst-case scenario of a new emerging infectious disease that could have devastating consequences for human health and society.
Disease X could be a new agent – a virus, a bacterium, or a fungus – that has no known treatments or vaccines. It could also be a known agent that has mutated or recombined to acquire new properties or spread to new hosts or regions. It could be a natural occurrence or a result of accidental or intentional release from a laboratory or bioweapon. It could be triggered by environmental changes, human-animal interactions, or global travel and trade.
Why should we worry about Disease X?
The concept of Disease X is not just a theoretical possibility. History has shown that new pathogens can emerge and cause pandemics with little warning and high impact. For example:
- The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
- The 2003 SARS outbreak infected over 8,000 people in 26 countries.
- The 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic affected over 200 countries and territories.
- The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed over 11,000 people.
- The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 5 million lives so far.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the gaps and weaknesses in our global preparedness and response systems for emerging infectious diseases. It has also highlighted the importance of investing in science, innovation, collaboration, and communication to combat such threats.
How can we prepare for Disease X?
Some of the key steps that can help us prepare for Disease X are:
- Strengthening surveillance and early detection systems for potential pathogens, using genomic sequencing, rapid diagnostics, digital tools, and data-sharing platforms.
- Enhancing research and development for novel vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, using platform technologies, adaptive trials, regulatory harmonization, and public-private partnerships.
- Building resilient health systems and supply chains that can cope with surges in demand for health care services and essential commodities during outbreaks.
- Promoting public health awareness and behavior change among individuals and communities to reduce exposure and transmission risks and increase uptake of preventive measures.
- Improving coordination and cooperation among national and international actors, including governments, multilateral organizations, civil society, private sector, media, and academia.
- Developing contingency plans and scenarios for different types of Disease X events and testing them through simulations and exercises.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we cannot afford to be complacent or unprepared for the next pandemic. Disease X may not be a matter of if, but when. The question is: are we ready?