What is ‘Disease X’ and why are experts worried?

Researchers are monitoring for the agent that could cause the next pandemic, known as ‘Disease X’

Maggie O'Neill
Friday 19 January 2024 07:58 GMT
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Martha Stewart receives Covid vaccine

Health authorities around the world are still grappling with lessons learned at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and trying to determine the best way to prevent a new one.

Many researchers have started referring to the next agent to cause mass illness around the world as “Disease X”. A 2022 statement from the World Health Organization (WHO), defines the term this way: “Disease X is [used] to indicate an unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic.”

Given what the world experienced when Covid emerged, it’s important for infectious disease experts and scientists to continually monitor new threats, Thomas Russo, MD, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, told The Independent.

“This concept [of Disease X] was one of the lessons we learned from this pandemic,” Dr Russo said. “As mankind breaks down these barriers [between humans and other species] through live animal markets and deforestation, we need continued surveillance and studies and improved biosecurity across the world.”

Such close contact with wildlife creates circumstances in which a virus that heretofore has only affected animals will start making humans ill, he explained.

To be clear, scientists don’t yet know what kind of virus may cause the next pandemic—or, in other words, what Disease X will turn out to be. Many people think it could be a coronavirus—like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes illness with Covid-19—or a new strain of influenza, Dr Russo said. “But it could be brand new,” he added.

There’s no way to tell when Disease X will emerge, nor can we make any educated guesses about how deadly it will be, Dr Russo said.

But given what the world experienced in 2020 and 2021 before vaccines against Covid were widely distributed, it’s crucial to stay alert to worrisome illnesses that pop up.

A member of the dialysis prepares to treat a patient with coronavirus in the intensive care unit at a hospital on May 1, 2020 in Leonardtown, Maryland.
A member of the dialysis prepares to treat a patient with coronavirus in the intensive care unit at a hospital on May 1, 2020 in Leonardtown, Maryland. (Getty Images)

“Whenever we have a crisis, we’ll throw resources, energy, attention into it,” Dr Russo said. “And then that crisis starts to recede. We say we’re going to make sure this never happens again, but then, inevitably, we completely let our guard down,” he said.

To reduce the harm done by Disease X, officials and policymakers have to stay focused on preventing the next pandemic. “One needs to continue biomedical research and funding and keep that ongoing in terms of the biology of what we call prototypical agents,” Dr Russo said.

These prototypical agents, he said, are any that scientists expect could, in the future, cause mass illness and death, like Covid-19 did when it first emerged.

This is largely the work of researchers and scientists, and Disease X isn’t yet something the public needs to be concerned about. “Most people now appreciate there is a likelihood [of another pandemic], but there’s not much they could do about it,” he said.

A man receives a nasal swab during a test for Covid-19 at a street-side testing booth in New York on December 17, 2021
A man receives a nasal swab during a test for Covid-19 at a street-side testing booth in New York on December 17, 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

However, it could be in one’s best interest to try to better their health so that when the next pandemic strikes they are as prepared as possible. “One of the things we learned from this pandemic is that individuals who were in poorer health did less well. Those who were in the poorest health suffered the brunt of hospitalisations,” Dr Russo said.

“One can’t always control their own personal health, but there are certain things we can do to” stay as healthy as possible. These, he said, include exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and cutting out any lifestyle habits that make you more susceptible to disease, such as smoking. These practices can also lower the risk of illness from Covid-19 and other diseases we already know about, he added.

Additionally, people should monitor the news and heed the advice given by reputable health authorities. “People need to keep up with reliable health information,” Dr Russo said. This includes following guidance and protocols set forth by agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

n this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on February 04, 2022 in San Anselmo, California.
n this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on February 04, 2022 in San Anselmo, California. (Getty Images)

“There’s a lot of people that believe the CDC is not to be trusted, certainly for Covid, but there’s a variety of other, non-government sites, such as university sites, that can be a good alternative” for people looking for health information who don’t want to rely on the CDC, Dr Russo said.

Though it’s important to stay on top of your health at all times and stay apprised of any warnings from local and federal health departments, there’s not much anyone can do to ward off or prevent the next pandemic, nor can we know for sure the specifics of said pandemic. Making guesses as to when it might occur and how devastating it might be is purely speculation, he said, adding that for the general public, “worrying too much about it isn’t going to be particularly beneficial.”

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