World leaders and health experts have gathered at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland to discuss preparations for the next global pandemic, including a hypothetical “Disease X”. There are growing concerns that another pandemic could emerge that may be even deadlier than COVID-19.
WHO Chief Calls for New Global Pandemic Treaty
The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, used the forum to call for a new international pandemic treaty to help countries work together more effectively to prepare for future outbreaks (WHO chief calls for world pandemic treaty). Tedros warned that another pandemic is inevitable and that the world remains unprepared despite the devastating impacts of COVID-19.
“Make no mistake, another pandemic will happen and there is no question as to whether the world will experience another pandemic, the question is when,” Tedros said.
Tedros argued that a new international agreement modeled after treaties on climate change and tobacco control could enhance coordination, information sharing, and equitable access to medical countermeasures. However, talks over a global pandemic treaty stalled last year amid disagreements between countries. Convincing nations to cede some control remains an obstacle.
What is “Disease X”?
“Disease X” is a hypothetical disease meant to represent the unknown pathogen that could cause the next global pandemic. The term was first used by the WHO in 2018 in their R&D Blueprint list of priority diseases needing urgent research and development.
The “X” represents an unknown quantity, meant to spur preparation for new diseases that have not yet emerged or been identified. Disease X could potentially be:
- A virus mutating from an animal population to infect humans
- An existing human pathogen mutating to become more virulent
- A bioterrorism agent
- A novel pathogen unlike any we’ve seen before
While Disease X itself is fictional, health experts take this concept very seriously as a push to build robust systems that can detect and respond quickly to unexpected outbreaks before they spiral out of control.
Warnings Over Complacency After COVID-19
Health leaders warned against the risk of complacency now that COVID-19 cases have declined globally. There are concerns that hard-fought progress could be lost and that countries may be less willing to finance pandemic preparedness efforts (Health leaders warn against complacency).
“We sink back into our slumber only to be shocked awake when a new pathogen emerges and takes hold swiftly and silently,” said Precious Matsoso, co-chair of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board.
The GPMB report in 2019 first flagged the threat of Disease X and called for urgent action, warning of a pandemic threat that could kill millions. But little action was taken before COVID-19 emerged.
Preparing Medical Countermeasures
Several speakers emphasized the need to accelerate development of vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics that can work against multiple diseases, not just specific pathogens. This would allow rapid response to known threats as well as unknown ones like Disease X.
For example, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is working on “prototype” vaccines using common technologies that could be quickly adapted to target new viral strains (CEPI discusses flexible vaccine platforms). Treatments based on monoclonal antibodies that work broadly against betacoronaviruses could also help prepare stockpiles.
|Prototype vaccine platforms
|Common technologies that can be quickly adapted to new pathogens
|Broadly neutralizing monoclonal antibodies
|Treatments that work against multiple viral strains
|Multiplex diagnostic tests
|Identify multiple respiratory pathogens from single sample
These tools, combined with enhanced disease surveillance, data sharing, and coordinated response plans will help countries react swiftly while a tailored medical solution is developed.
Speculation and Concerns Over “Disease X”
Discussion of the mysterious Disease X has also stirred some public speculation and conspiracy theories akin to the early confusion surrounding COVID-19 (Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones rants about Disease X). Some critics argued that preparations for hypothetical future pandemics are detracting from continued response efforts to COVID-19 itself.
However, health experts at Davos reiterated that Disease X is simply meant to represent gaps in pandemic preparedness, not make concrete predictions. Building robust systems focused on agile response will save lives regardless of what the next threat is or where it emerges from.
Call for International Cooperation
Ultimately, the summit highlighted the need for continued political commitment and global cooperation to make the world more resilient against epidemic shocks. Relying solely on national efforts is insufficient when pathogens do not respect country borders.
Financing remains a significant barrier, especially for lower income countries. Speakers called for increased and sustained investments towards pandemic preparedness, not just emergency funding during crises.
While future threats loom, leaders expressed optimism that the innovations and spirit of collaboration sparked by COVID-19 could help humanity be better prepared for Disease X, whatever its shape. But time will tell whether these commitments translate into meaningful change.
What Happens Next?
In the wake of the Davos summit, the push for an international pandemic treaty will likely intensify, but reaching an effective agreement still faces considerable barriers given complex geopolitical tensions between key global players like the United States and China (Challenges facing pandemic treaty).
Regional coalitions may advance some aspects of preparedness, like surveillance networks and stockpiling. But equitable access to vaccines and medicines relies on sustaining funding and political will beyond the media spotlight of Davos.
While Disease X itself remains only hypothetical, health experts predict the threat of another pandemic, potentially more lethal than COVID-19, is inevitable. But with vigilance and cooperation, its impacts don’t have to be catastrophic.
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.