'Disease X' Isn't Here Yet, but Preparations Are Being Made

World leaders, health experts set up for pandemic that could potentially be far worse than COVID-19
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 18, 2024 11:45 AM CST
World Leaders Meet to Address a Virus That Doesn't Exist
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks during a press conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva on April 6.   (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, File)

World leaders and health experts are coming together to combat a serious international epidemic that's thankfully hypothetical at this point. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it's that health care systems and economies can be easily overwhelmed by the global spread of a little-understood disease. Enter "Disease X," a "hypothetical virus 20 times deadlier than COVID-19," which itself has killed more than 7 million people, per CBS News. Recognized by the World Health Organization as a top priority for research in 2018, Disease X "represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by [an unknown] pathogen," according to the UN agency. The goal is to come up with a plan to combat such a pathogen, likely to be a respiratory virus, before it appears.

"If we did so poorly with something like COVID-19, you can imagine how poorly we would do with something like a 1918-level event," Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security tells CBS, referring to the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people. It's possible a virus like Disease X is already present in animals but has yet to jump to humans lacking immunity, he adds. "There are some people who say this may create panic" but "it's better to anticipate something that may happen, because it has happened in our history many times, and prepare for it," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders gathered to discuss plans, per Al Jazeera.

Ghebreyesus highlighted the need for an early warning system, plans for health infrastructure, and avenues to overcome vaccine inequity. Adalja says transparency will also be important given the "distrust between infectious disease physicians, public health practitioners, and the general public" that emerged around COVID-19, per CBS. In a perfect example of that, Al Jazeera reports that news of the meeting "sparked conspiracy from right-wing accounts on social media that world leaders are launching the next pandemic." Former Trump administration official Monica Crowley suggested "unelected globalists" would spread "a new contagion to allow them to implement a new WHO treaty, lock down again, restrict free speech, and destroy more freedoms," per Fortune. (More pandemic stories.)

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