As the world continues to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts are sounding alarms about the possibility of an even deadlier disease, nicknamed “Disease X”, emerging in the future. This hypothetical pathogen could potentially kill tens of millions more people than COVID-19 according to projections.
What is Disease X?
Disease X is a term coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) to describe an unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic. Essentially, it represents a recognition that a new disease could emerge and take the world by surprise.
How Deadly Could It Be?
Kate Bingham, former chair of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, provided a stark warning about Disease X’s potential impact. She estimated the death toll could reach around 50 million people globally – more than double the number of fatalities from World War I.
Bingham pointed out that the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people. She suggested a similar outbreak today, with international travel and dense urban areas, could have a comparable impact.
Threat Likely Originates from Animals
Many experts believe Disease X would likely originate from an animal virus that mutates and develops the ability to infect humans. Bingham explained that around three-quarters of new infectious diseases begin in animals before jumping to people.
Deforestation and destruction of habitats are pushing wildlife closer to human settlements, increasing the chances of animal viruses adapting in dangerous new ways.
How Many Unknown Viruses Exist?
While scientists are aware of 25 families of viruses, potentially encompassing over a million individual viruses, many more likely remain undiscovered. Any one of these could evolve into a serious human threat.
Bingham noted that with COVID-19, most infected people ultimately recovered. However, if Disease X matched COVID-19’s infectiousness while also having an Ebola-like fatality rate of around 70%, the impacts could be catastrophic.
Preparing for the Worst
Health agencies worldwide are attempting to get ahead of Disease X by shoring up pandemic preparedness plans. The UK government has already begun working on vaccines targeting possible animal viruses like bird flu that could someday jump to people.
Scientists emphasize that climate change, globalization, population growth in cities, and other factors are increasing the odds of deadly outbreaks emerging in the future. While Disease X remains hypothetical for now, experts stress the need to act before the next pandemic arrives.
Any emerging pathogen will require swift, coordinated efforts in developing vaccines, treatments, and containment strategies worldwide. With proactive planning and research, experts hope the impacts of Disease X could potentially be minimized. But they caution that without action, the world could again face an outbreak rivaling past pandemics in its disruption and tragic cost of human life.