Fears that a virus will unleash in the coming years a new pandemic of a hitherto unknown disease (which scientists call “disease X“) forced the World Health Organization (WHO) to begin work on developing a new list of pathogens to watch out for.
“Focusing on priority pathogens and virus families for research and development of countermeasures is essential to have an effective and rapid epidemic and pandemic response”, said the director of emergencies of the WHOmichael ryan.
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“Without significant investments in R&D (research + development) before the covid-19 pandemic, it would have been impossible to have safe and effective vaccines developed in record time,” he added.
Scientists estimate that birds and mammals harbor about 1.7 million viruses, including about 700,000 with “zoonotic potential,” meaning that could spread to people.
To seek to avoid future pandemics, the WHO convened more than 300 scientists who will study more than 25 families of viruses and bacteria before they attack and will have the mission to monitor the emergence of “Disease X”, an unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic.
According to the WHO, “Disease X represents the knowledge that a severe international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen that is currently unknown to cause human disease.”
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“Disease X is caused by pathogen Xan infectious agent that is currently not known to cause human disease, but is an etiological agent of a future outbreak with epidemic or pandemic potential,” explained the specialized journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The WHO list of viruses and bacteria under the microscope was first published in 2017 and includes the Covid-19, Ebola and Marburg viruses; Lassa fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Nipah virus and Zika.
For each pathogen identified as a priority, experts will pinpoint knowledge gaps and priority research.
“This list of priority pathogens has become a reference point for the scientific community on where to focus energies to manage the next threat,” said Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist.
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“It is developed together with experts in the field and is the agreed direction in which we, as a global research community, need to invest energy and funds to develop tests, treatments and vaccines.”
“We think the next emerging pandemic could be a virus we don’t even know about yet,” he said last January. Mark Woolhouseprofessor of epidemiology and expert in infectious diseases of the usher institute in Edinburghwhich he believes “is the most likely scenario.”
The new WHO research comes amid mounting evidence that the threat of zoonosis jumping to humans is accelerating due to urbanization, deforestation and climate change. In Africa, for example, the number of outbreaks caused by zoonotic diseases has increased by 63% in the last decade.
Meanwhile, weeks ago, Scientists in Canada found that melting glaciers could soon expose frozen viruses that pose a threat to humans.
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In April, an investigation published in the journal Nature suggested that the change in temperature will cause a “potentially devastating” increase in new species-hopping pathogens over the next 50 years.
Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfumwho helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976, told CNN: “Now we are in a world where new pathogens will appear. And that is what constitutes a threat to humanity.”
Asked if any new disease could be more apocalyptic than Covid-19, he said: “Yes, yes, I think so.”
What diseases present the greatest risk to public health today?
Currently, the following diseases are considered to pose the greatest risk to public health due to their epidemic potential and/or if there are no or insufficient countermeasures. The next list is expected to be updated and published in early 2023.
- Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever
- Ebola virus disease
- Marburg virus disease
- Lassa fever
- Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
- Nipah and other henipaviral diseases
- Rift Valley fever
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