A Disease X pandemic of global reach would be a terrible scenario in the near future. However, international health experts at the World Health Organization still could not put their finger exactly on what it could be. WHO’s recent sweeping statement categorizes Disease X as a contagious and deadly disease that is soon to exist.
Leaders in virology, bacteriology, and infectious diseases recently convened at the WHO headquarters in Geneva and released the committee report and warnings of pathogens that could kill a large chunk of the population in the near future.
In a statement, WHO depicted Disease X as “representing knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.” The statement added that research and development on Disease X are now in progress. Preparedness is critical in confronting a possible outbreak of huge magnitude which scientists have not seen before. “Preparedness includes being ready with appropriate diagnostic tests and preventive vaccines,” stressed WHO in its statement.
According to John-Arne Rottingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway and a scientific adviser to the WHO Committee, the most possible mechanism for the spread of Disease X would be through animal-borne or zoonotic means.
Zoonosis means a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans or a specific disease that inherently affects animals which can also infect humans such as in the case of Ebola, HIV, and Salmonella. About 70 percent of known diseases in human history affecting the population were zoonoses. This occurs because of close interaction between humans and animals, wherein diseases are transmitted by saliva, by bites or by air.
Rottingen emphasized that systems should be able to generate “countermeasures” the moment any one of the threats breaks out. This means that health structures should be able to spot an outbreak at the onset, contain it, and kill it off to avoid spreading.
Health Threat List
While Disease X poses no clear and present danger at the moment, it remains to be a hidden threat. In fact, its imminence and notoriety has secured a place in WHO’s most dangerous list of future epidemics. The list serves as a reference catalog of future potential epidemics, a list of battles the society would find difficult to face and overcome, resources-wise.
The diseases which render international public health systems unprepared include Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus or MERS-CoV, severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, Lassa fever, Nipah and Henipaviral diseases, Zika virus, Rift Valley fever, and the controversial Disease X.
Future threats may also include arenaviral hemorrhagic fever, Chikungunya, highly pathogenic coronaviral diseases other than MERS and SARS, emergent non-polio enteroviruses (including EV71, D68), and severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome.
WHO says that diseases have caused outbreaks in the recent past such as Ebola in 2014, Zika, Lassa fever, and SARS. Each of these outbreaks has been difficult to subdue.
Disease X is getting tagged as the known “unknown” in the scientific and defense community. It’s inclusion to the list was not meant to scare the wits out of the earth’s populace. Rather, WHO chose to acknowledge Disease X, along with other infectious diseases on the list as capable of pullulating into unpredictable epidemics. Spanish flu alone, for example, killed 50-100 million people between 1918 and 1920.
Disease X could be a catastrophe bound to happen. Thus, WHO, the United Nation’s frontrunner on international public health, encouraged the global health communities to build resilience and develop capacities. These countermeasures are needed to deal with both predictable and unpredictable threats before it is too late.
Sources speculated that Disease X could be sparked by a biological mutation, or an accident or terror attack that could startle everybody but which nobody sees coming while moving fast.
Another discerned that Disease X could be the deliberate employ of infectious disease for weapons of mass destruction. These bio-weapons have been tactically used since the Middle Ages. However, new scientific developments point to gene editing and an exponential increase in computing power as boosting the capacity to produce lethal biological agents.
During the Cold War, the US and USSR both delved into bio weapon development and continue to possess live cultures of deadly pathogens such as smallpox virus in secure and hidden labs.
In addition, groups in the Middle East have tampered with deadly pathogens. Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship ventured into botulinum toxins and Al Qaeda operatives experimented on anthrax. In fact, a confiscated laptop belonging to IS member in 2014 was found with instructions on how to weaponize the plague virus.
While incidents of bioweapon attacks remain low, there are still possibilities. Canada published a detailed paper on synthetically engineered horsepox, a close relative of smallpox virus. This paper could wrongly inspire terrorists to synthesize smallpox in pursuit of their savage ideology.
Another probable source of Disease X is zoonoses which are diseases inherent to wild and domesticated animals and epizootic to humans.
The Ebola virus, for example, started with an Ebola-infected bat bite to a one-year old boy in Guinea. The disease spread to immediate family members and went on to kill more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. That bite led to the 2013-2016 West African pandemic.
Another epizootic virus is HIV. What probably begun as someone killing and eating a wild chimpanzee resulted in the human HIV epidemic. Since then, some 70 million people were infected and 35 million more were killed.
Disease X could incubate in domestic livestock with the virus capable of mutating and shifting from one animal to the next and to humans. Farm animals such as chickens, pigs and even camels are kept in close quarters which are translated into ideal breeding grounds for zoonotic disease. The airborne virus spreads fast but animals usually spread it through their ticks.
One more possibility that scientists say is when Disease X becomes a mutation of an existing animal disease such as avian influenza or the African swine fever. Or it is possible that Disease X is a brand-new pathogen that shifts from one animal to the next and to its final destination-- humans.
Humans explore natural ecosystems for the sake of progress and this is exhibited in whatever farming, mining, and colonizing of large and wild places is being done on earth. It is possible that in these expeditions we have come in contact with unknown animal bugs. Our risk of exposure to new zoonotic diseases is increased when African bushes are cut down or Brazilian rainforests are mined.
The “Unknown” In The Wind
The evolution of existing diseases is also seen as another pandemic risk that could be Disease X. These diseases have a proven track record of their epidemic devastations in history. Influenza, tuberculosis, and HIV are the biggest threats to mankind.
In 2009, H1N1, also known as the swine flu proved invincible as it quickly became pandemic in 213 countries and territories where an estimated 285,000 people died. WHO explained that “approximately one out of five people on the planet were infected, but very few died. H1N1 was highly infectious, but it was not highly virulent.”
The H151 avian influenza is another powerhouse to watch out for with a mortality rate of 60 percent in humans. The H151 cannot spread from human to human but could easily mutate. The combination of infectiousness of H1N1 and its own mortality rate could turn the H151 avian influenza into a ruthless enemy.
Another evolving disease is tuberculosis. TB infection at its most basic form is curable through simple antibiotic treatment. However, the tuberculosis bacteria are becoming resistant and immune to antibiotics. As such, multidrug-resistant TB patients have grown exponentially with 490,000 people from 117 countries rendered incurable.
The third existing pandemic is HIV that could evolve dangerously. HIV infected patients were given antiretroviral drugs to help them live with the condition as normally as possible. Unfortunately, HIV is becoming more and more drug resistant and is known as the fastest mutating organism on the planet today. New strains of HIV are aggressive and quickly become resistant that 10-15 percent of people diagnosed with HIV are resistant to the standard antiviral treatments.
These diseases are managed and restrained with efforts on surveillance, effective treatments, and God’s intervention.
[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼=Kay Yeban 기자]