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March 4, 2024

Preparing for the Next Pandemic: Disease X on the Agenda at Davos 2024

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Jan 20, 2024

The 2024 World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland has put pandemic preparedness at the top of the agenda, with a major focus on the hypothetical concept of “Disease X”. Disease X refers to an unknown pathogen with pandemic potential that could emerge and lead to a serious international epidemic.

WEF Warns Risk of Future Pandemics Remains High

The COVID-19 pandemic that emerged in 2019 and continued into 2024 has underscored the ongoing threat of new infectious diseases and the importance of early action to contain outbreaks before they spread globally. In an opening address at the Davos summit, WEF founder Klaus Schwab warned that the risk of future pandemics remains worryingly high:

“We must learn the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and put in place measures to prepare for, detect, and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats whether natural, accidental or deliberate in origin,” Schwab said.

The WEF session on Disease X aimed to motivate collective action and push health higher on the global political agenda. Panelists stressed that pandemic risk requires a coordinated global response based on science, transparency and technology sharing.

What Exactly is “Disease X”?

The concept of Disease X was initially put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018, referring to an “unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic.” Disease X is not a specific agent, but serves as a placeholder to emphasize gaps in pandemic preparedness for pathogens not yet identified or understood.

Characteristics of a “Disease X” pathogen according to the WHO:

  • Causes serious illness in humans
  • Can be transmitted easily between people
  • Presents a major public health risk
  • No, or very limited, countermeasures exist

Disease X scenarios could involve novel influenza strains, coronaviruses or other virus families with pandemic potential. Filoviruses like Ebola are also highlighted as priority threats. Scientists warn that continued deforestation and climate change make zoonotic spillover events more likely to occur.

Virus Hunter Golding Issues Stark Warning

Prominent UK virologist Professor William Golding, known for his virus hunting expeditions in remote regions, offered a sobering perspective in a video address to Davos attendees:

“We can be certain that new viruses will continue to emerge. It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’. Our encroachment into wilderness areas means we are sitting ducks waiting for the next pandemic to unfold,” Golding said.

“Pathogens we are ill-equipped to deal with are boiling up like a pressure cooker in forests and cave systems, waiting to spill over into the human population. The solution lies in building global surveillance capabilities focused on this disease X threat.”

Golding gained fame for his discovery of over 40 novel viruses in the past decade, mostly coronaviruses and filoviruses originating from bats in remote cave systems in Asia and Africa. He reiterated the need to crack down on wet markets and illegal wildlife trade which drive spillover events.

Panel Emphasizes Risk Mitigation, Vigilance

The Davos Disease X panel featured leading epidemiologists, virus experts and health authorities. Key points of discussion are summarized in the table below:

Theme Discussion Points
Risk mitigation – Improve pandemic vigilance capacities in all countries
– Increase Wildlife pathogen surveillance
– Regulate high risk wildlife trade and markets
– Ramp up PPE stockpiles globally
Preparedness – Expand early warning surveillance networks
– Commit funding for rapid response teams
– Establish infrastructure to quickly develop vaccines for novel pathogens
Response capability – Create flexible vaccine platforms
– Build infrastructure for accelerated vaccine trials
– Ensure equitable global access to medicines and vaccines
Cooperation – Data and technology sharing critical
– Cannot take “narrow nationalistic approach”
– Recommit to idea of global public good for health

Emphasizing the importance of global cooperation, WHO’s Director-General urged leaders:

“We must reimagine our relationship with the natural world and build capacities for preventing, detecting and responding to emergent infectious diseases across the planet – capacities based on effective mechanisms for international coordination and financing, rooted in equity and public trust.”

What Comes Next?

The Disease X concept and Davos discussion are meant to push policy change and funding allocations focused on pandemic prevention and preparedness. Key initiatives highlighted for action:

Global Health Threat Council – Proposed new high-level intergovernmental council at heads-of-state level aimed at keeping health threats atop the global political agenda in between crises. Would coordinate priorities for risk monitoring, preparedness, surveillance and equitable access to countermeasures.

Global Pandemic Supply Chain – Plan to build strategic reserves of supplies and infrastructure for deploying critical equipment and essential medical countermeasures rapidly around the world based on public health needs.

Pandemic Framework Convention – WHO-level treaty under negotiation that would set new international rules for alert systems, info sharing, sequencing and coordinating rollout of vaccines and treatments to avoid repeat of COVID-19 inequities.

In the wake of COVID-19, infectious disease experts warn it is not a matter of if, but when, the next serious pandemic threat will emerge. While future scenarios remain hypothetical, the Disease X concept highlights the importance of planning and mitigating risks now rather than later. The decisions made at Davos 2024 could prove pivotal.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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