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World leaders to meet to discuss threat of hypothetical ‘Disease X’ pandemic in Davos

World leaders meeting in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week are set to discuss concerns about the potential for a future pandemic that could cause 20 times more fatalities than Covid-19.

It’s known by the placeholder name of Disease X, with the term used to refer to planning for a hypothetical future international epidemic caused by a pathogen as yet unknown to cause human disease, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In a session entitled “Preparing for Disease X”, a panel led by the WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will talk about “novel efforts needed to prepare healthcare systems for the multiple challenges ahead” if we are to be ready for a much more deadly pandemic, the WEF said.

The WHO ranks Disease X as a priority disease in its awareness campaigning, alongside Covid-19, the Ebola virus, Zika virus, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

Disease X was added to the list in 2018 as the WHO sought to open up discussions about tackling a global pandemic in the future.

The WHO has prioritised research and development in an emergency context for all these diseases, stating that the blueprint “explicitly seeks to enable early cross-cutting R&D [research and development] preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown Disease X”.

“Worldwide, the number of potential pathogens is very large, while the resources for disease research and development (R&D) is limited,” the WHO had previously said in a statement.

Along with Dr Tedros, the session this Wednesday will feature Brazilian health minister Nisia Trindade Lima, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca’s chair of the board Michel Demaré, Royal Philips CEO Roy Jakobs, and Indian hospital chain Apollo’s executive vice-chairperson Preetha Reddy.

To be clear, scientists don’t yet know what kind of virus might lead to 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.

“This concept [of Disease X] was one of the lessons we learned from this [Covid] pandemic,” said Dr Thomas Russo, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

He 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.”

Disease X could also turn out to be a brand new pathogen not yet known even among animals, he warned.

Building readiness to tackle the next pandemic, and working out how to prevent the collapse of national healthcare infrastructure, as was seen in many countries in 2020, has now become a critical objective for the WHO.

UK scientists have said that a vaccine for a new virus with pandemic potential could be developed in as little as 100 days. In August last year, researchers from the University of Oxford announced that they were examining how to adapt the vaccine it created for Covid-19 for Disease X. They will also examine how other vaccines could be developed to thwart future threats.