Health Officials Warn of Deadly New 'Disease X' Pathogen Outbreak
World Health Organization issues warning for mysterious new virus
Scientists with the World Health Organization have warned health workers around the globe to be on high alert following an outbreak of a mysterious, and potentially deadly, new virus outbreak.
WHO officials have dubbed the harmful new pathogen "Disease X" as researchers fear it may soon break out into a worldwide pandemic.
The Geneva-based organization is tasked with monitoring and safeguarding world health by identifying diseases that could spark a major international public health emergency.
The group has just convened a high-level meeting of senior scientists to assess how a "Disease X" pandemic may impact the global community.
In previous years, WHO has been charged with containing killers such as Lassa fever, which is currently sweeping through Nigeria, and Ebola, which killed more than 11,000 people in a West African epidemic between 2013 and 2016.
This mystery new pathogen has just appeared on the radar for the first time, however.
WHO said in a statement:
"These diseases pose major public health risks, and further research and development is needed, including surveillance and diagnostics.
"Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease."
WHO's leading experts say Disease X could have emerged from a variety of sources and may break-out at any time.
John-Arne Rottingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway, and a scientific adviser to the WHO committee said in a statement that a solution must be found quickly:
"History tells us that it is likely the next big outbreak will be something we have not seen before.
"It may seem strange to be adding an ‘X’ but the point is to make sure we prepare and plan flexibly in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests.
"We want to see ‘plug and play’ platforms developed which will work for any, or a wide number of diseases; systems that will allow us to create countermeasures at speed."
Rottingen warned that advances in gene editing technology, which involve the manipulation of existing diseases or make the creation of entirely new viruses possible, mean that Disease X could have evolved by accident or it could have been created by terrorists.
The news this week of nerve gas being used in Salisbury, UK, shows how far the taboo of using chemical weapons and biological warfare has broken down.
With the creation of "horsepox" in Canada last year, which is a variant of the Smallpox virus, fears are now mounting among experts that Disease X may have been born in a renegade laboratory to be used as an act of terror.
According to Mr. Rottingen, a manmade Disease X seems less likely than a naturally evolved one but warned:
"Synthetic biology allows for the creation of deadly new viruses.
"It is also the case that where you have a new disease there is no resistance in the population and that means it can spread fast."
Rottingen said that if Disease X has evolved naturally, then it may be sparked by a zoonotic disease.
A zoonotic disease can jump from animals to humans and then spread rapidly to become an epidemic or pandemic in the same way H1N1 Swine flu virus did in 2009.
In the past, zoonotic infections such as HIV and Ebola, have wreaked havoc.
HIV is estimated to have killed 35 million people since the early 1980s and is believed to have started when it mutated and jumped from chimpanzees to humans through the eating of bushmeat.
Mr. Rottingen described zoonotic diseases as the "greatest risk," saying:
"As the ecosystem and human habitats change there is always the risk of disease jumping from animals to humans.
"It’s a natural process and it is vital that we are aware and prepare. It is probably the greatest risk."
A scientific advisor to WHO, and head of the Viroscience department of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Professor Marion Koopmans, said the rate at which zoonotic diseases are appearing is increasing rapidly at a worrying level, adding:
"The intensity of animal and human contact is becoming much greater as the world develops.
"This makes it more likely new diseases will emerge but also modern travel and trade make it much more likely they will spread."
The World Health Organization says it prioritized Disease X a high-level pathogen that has the potential to cause a public health emergency through epidemic spread and there are no adequate countermeasures available.
Recently, a number of relatively new diseases have broken out that WHO is monitoring, including Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever; the zoonotic respiratory diseases MERS and SARS; and Zika which has been linked to severe birth defects in almost 30 countries.
Officials with WHO are currently working around the clock to develop new tests, vaccines, and treatments for Disease X.
The organization says it hopes that the threat of these deadly new outbreaks will drive global governments into investing in strengthening local health systems.
The lack of primary care systems with well-trained doctors and nurses in developing countries can lead to diseases spread much faster.
These health officials could provide the best chance of detecting the outbreak of a new disease early and containing it before it spreads and becomes impossible to contain.
Professor Koopmans says Disease X could be out of control by the time it reaches the West, due to the lack of containment during the initial outbreak, adding:
“We have these outbreaks and the international community flies in but in the case of Ebola, the disease went under the radar for four months.
"It's really crucial we start to change that and make sure local health care infrastructure is better developed.
"People on the ground are vital.
"They are our first line of defence."