World set for new disease worse than Ebola and SARS

Faith Castro
March 13, 2018

More likely, said Rottingen, Disease X could be sparked by a zoonotic disease - one that jumps from animals to humans - and then spreads to become an epidemic or pandemic in the same way H1N1 swine flu virus did in 2009.

But the mystery threat has not been placed on the list to scare the public.

Code-named "Disease X", this mystery pathogen hasn't even been discovered yet, but the looming threat of its nearly certain inevitability has secured it a place on the WHO's "most dangerous" list: a catalogue of potential future epidemics for which countermeasures are insufficient - or don't exist at all.

Despite not being identified as a specific disease, the pathogen has been classed as extremely risky.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed details about "Disease X" in its second annual review of priority diseases.

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To be clear, we don't yet know what Disease X is.

Contenders are weighed primarily on their potential to rapidly epidemics of huge proportions, even global pandemics, as well as the real-life damage they have proven capable of.

Although the World Health Organization has chosen to include Disease X on its list of deadly diseases, experts believe that already known pathogens are growing ever more virulent. An "unknown" beast for which we are not yet prepared, but which we must anticipate.

John-Arne Rottingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway and a scientific adviser to the World Health Organization committee, added: "History tells us that it is likely the next big outbreak will be something we have not seen before". But there are a multitude of possible sources, including existing viruses that have demonstrated new virulence and new symptoms (as in Zika) but also escaped viruses from laboratories or used as biological weapons, or zoonoses - which relate to diseases and infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans directly or indirectly. However, he stressed that this was to "make sure we prepare and plan flexibility in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests". In fact, as far as viruses are concerned, that evolution is very much a natural process - one that we need to be aware of and prepare for. Changing ecosystems and human habitats have the potential to see a transfer of animal diseases to humans. The diseases on the WHO list pose a public health risk because of "their epidemic potential" as well as the "insufficient" countermeasures, according to the WHO. "It is probably the greatest risk", said Mr Rottingen.

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