Scientists put on alert for deadly new pathogen - 'Disease X'

Laverne Higgins
March 12, 2018

Each year, the Geneva-based WHO - tasked with monitoring and safeguarding world health - convenes a high-level meeting of senior scientists, listing diseases that risk prompting a major global public health emergency.

The R&D Blueprint is a global strategy and preparedness plan that allows the rapid activation of R&D activities during epidemics.

The most recent review took place in February, with experts agreeing the following diseases are the ones that most urgently require researchers' attention: Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF); Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease; Lassa fever; Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); Nipah and henipaviral diseases; Rift Valley fever (RVF); and Zika virus.

It was the first time that Disease X made the list.

Advances in gene editing technology, which make the manipulation or creation of entirely new viruses possible, mean that Disease X could emerge through an accident or act of terror.

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Luckily, for now, it all hinges on that "could".

Despite not being identified as a specific disease, the pathogen has been classed as extremely risky. According to WHO, "Disease X" will be caused by a pathogen which is not yet identified to cause human diseases.

The disease has joined "List of Blueprint priority diseases", of World Health Organization which includes the Ebola virus, Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, ) Zika virus and Rift Valley fever (RVF) after an annual review carried out from February 6-7 when there was an "urgent need" for accelerated research and development for the maladies.

"It may seem odd to be adding an "X" but the point is make sure we prepare and plan flexibly in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests". Ebola is also a zoonosis. This has also brought us in closer contact and closer contact with more species of animals than ever before, exponentially increasing the likelihood of zoonoses. "It is vital that we are aware and prepare. It is probably the greatest risk", Mr. Rotingen adds.

Not a great deal is known about the disease yet, although World Health Organization warns that Disease X needed to be included on the list because of its unpredictable nature. Primary care systems (local doctors and nurses) are key to safeguarding public health, as they're our best bet for detecting outbreaks of a new disease early on, and containing it before it spreads. These classes will be considered for inclusion on next year's list.

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