COVID-19 presented unparalleled global challenges and resulted in a significant loss of life. Scientists worked tirelessly to develop a vaccine to combat the rapidly spreading virus, which emerged in 2019. After three years, a semblance of normalcy has returned, but scientists remain cautious about the possibility of future outbreaks.
Recently, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement urging the world to prepare for the next pandemic, which could be even more deadly than COVID-19. This remark has reignited interest in the WHO’s list of ‘priority diseases’ on their website.
The list includes well-known diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and Zika. However, the inclusion of “Disease X” has raised concerns. According to the WHO, Disease X represents the notion that a severe global epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human illness. It could be a new agent, such as a virus, bacterium, or fungus, for which no known treatments exist. The WHO began using this term in 2018, and a year later, COVID-19 began its worldwide spread.
Pranab Chatterjee, a researcher at the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, stressed the potential of a Disease X event on the horizon. He pointed to the recent surge of H5N1 bird flu cases in Cambodia as an example. The term Disease X has sparked discussions worldwide, with many experts suggesting that the next major epidemic will likely be zoonotic, similar to Ebola and COVID-19. Some also raised the possibility of a human-engineered pathogen.
In a 2021 article published in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, the authors emphasized that the possibility of an engineered pandemic pathogen should not be disregarded. Alongside Disease X, the WHO’s list of priority diseases includes Marburg virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Lassa fever, Nipah and henipaviral diseases, Rift Valley fever, and Middle East respiratory syndrome.
In light of these concerns, health experts are advocating for increased surveillance and additional funding to develop effective countermeasures. It is crucial to enhance preparedness and response capabilities to mitigate the impact of potential future pandemics.