Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 19 June 2023

Decoding the unknown pathogen

Source: By The Indian Express

Days after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 was no longer a global health emergency, marking an end to the pandemic that claimed millions of lives, experts fear that “Disease X” can lead to an “even deadlier” pandemic.

According to the WHO, “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.” The term, which was coined in 2018, is on WHO’s shortlist of ‘priority diseases’.

To prevent and tackle the outbreak of Disease X, experts are clamouring for a rise in funds to support the surveillance of, and research into, potential pandemic agents, according to a report in the New York Post.

What is Disease X?

Last year in June, health experts in Britain had warned the UK government to be ready for ‘Disease X’ amid reports of cases of poliovirus being found in sewage samples of London, and also monkeypoxLassa fever, and bird flu in recent years, according to Reuters.

Talking about the same, Dr Sanjay Gupta, Senior Consultant, Internal Medicine, Paras Hospitals said, “We don’t have enough information about this pathogen, which is the latest entry in the priority disease list. However, it is being claimed that it could cause a serious international epidemic, potentially devastating the human community. It has characteristics similar to SARS-CoV-2 virus, which can present with symptoms like high fevercough and respiratory failure. Most likely, it is an RNA virus that has ribonucleic acid as its genetic material.”

The WHO first published a list of pathogens that could cause a ‘deadly pandemic’ in 2017. Currently, the list includes COVID-19Ebola virus diseaseMarburg virus diseaseLassa feverMiddle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)Nipah, and Zika, with its latest entry being Disease X.

Explaining the nature of Disease X, Dr Gupta said that experts believe it will be zoonotic, meaning it will originate in animals and then spread to humans. “So far, the deadly outbreaks of Ebola, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 were also zoonotic.”

However, according to a 2012 article in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, “The possibility of an engineered pandemic pathogen also cannot be ignored.”

The authors added that the release of such pathogens, either through laboratory accidents as an act of bioterrorism might lead to a disastrous Disease X as well and has been remarked as a global catastrophic risk. Another possibility is a “zombie” virus, which is locked in permafrost or other frozen landscapes for years, but is released due to warming climate, the report claimed.

WHO chief warns of next pandemic

Concluding, Dr Gupta said, “There is no reason to panic because there is limited evidence to establish that such an entity exists. But, planning and preparedness are crucial to counter any future outbreak with devastating effects.”