Disease X fever infects Davos: WEF to plan response to whatever big pandemic is next

Heads up, this isn't about Elon

When the World Economic Forum meets in Davos next week, global leaders are set to discuss how to prevent a future unknown "Disease X" the World Health Organization predicts could kill 20 times more people than the recent coronavirus outbreak. 

The name might sound like something conjured up by Elon Musk, but the prospect of Disease X has been on the WHO's radar since it deemed the fabled pathogen a research priority in 2017. The WHO prioritizes research into Disease X alongside research into diseases like COVID-19, the Ebola virus, SARS, MERS, Zika and others. 

The WHO has warned several times since the coronavirus outbreak that a future pandemic could be just around the corner. Given researchers aren't working with a known pathogen – it's just assumed a really bad one will emerge at some point – work to prevent an ensuing global pandemic is hypothetical at best. 

Speaking to the WEF on its Radio Davos podcast last year, Kate Kelland, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations chief scientific writer and author of a book on Disease X, said minimizing the impact of the as-yet unknown pathogen simply requires lots of research into already-known virus families. Assuming, of course, Disease X emerges from sources or takes a form we're already familiar with.  

Kelland gives COVID-19 as an example of how the fight against Disease X would ideally go down: Because that one was a coronavirus, something we know a fair amount about, fighting the infection was somewhat easier than it could have been. 

"Because scientists were working for decades or more on Sars vaccines and also on Mers vaccine, they found out some very key pieces of information about coronaviruses," Kelland said. "If we do that kind of homework on every one of the 25 or so viral families that we already know have the potential to cause disease in humans … then we can actually gain a lot of knowledge ahead of time about something that doesn't exist yet."

There's a real-world case to use an example: Monkeypox. 

"We actually already had a vaccine that worked [for Monkeypox] because it came from the same family as smallpox, camel pox, all sorts of other viruses, and they share common traits," Kelland said. 

In essence, Kelland said, it's all about doing the vaccinology legwork and research that puts the world in a good position "to produce something that will target a novel virus before that virus even emerges." 

Armed with that knowledge of much of the world's human-infecting pathogens, it's just a matter of building a global repository of such knowledge, which Kelland said is part of CEPI's mission.

The hope is that, with a proper research framework and global knowledge base in place, a future Disease X pandemic could be eliminated in 100 days.

"It is a vast amount of work, but it does have an end point and it is doable," Kelland said. 

It's that work that the WEF's Centre for Health and Healthcare will be discussing on January 17 when it meets to talk about preparing for Disease X with members of the WHO and other health officials. We've asked the WEF to get more details on the session.

Along with the discussion at the WEF annual meeting, the WHO is also working on a scientific framework for epidemic and pandemic research preparedness. The WHO is holding meetings this month and next to further develop its pathogen research programs.

While it's good news that staying ahead of Disease X may be doable, "The less good news is that it will take a lot of international cooperation and resources," Kelland earlier warned.

That might be difficult, but it's happened before - even amid a tense international climate like the one we have now.

"The vast majority of the smallpox eradication work was done during the Cold War," Kelland said. "The US and Russia were pointing missiles at each other, but they were also sharing vaccines." ®

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