As world leaders gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos, they will likely discuss plans to prepare for a hypothetical future international epidemic far deadlier than Covid-19. It’s known by the placeholder name “Disease X.” It represents the unknown pathogen that could cause an outbreak and is believed to be 20 times more deadly than Covid-19.
Scientists have been working on medical countermeasures for years to prevent this severe yet unknown microbial threat. One of those tools is a vaccine, which can prevent the spread of a new infection in people by prompting their immune systems to attack it. A vaccine is beneficial for preventing a global pandemic since it can be rapidly deployed around the globe.
Until recently, researchers focused on a limited number of infectious threats that were already out there — like the Ebola virus, measles, and cholera — to try to develop the following vaccines. However, after the global pandemic of 2019 and 2020, scientists began to realize that many more unknown infectious threats needed protection. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) added the hypothetical Disease X to a shortlist of blueprint priority diseases, alongside COVID-19, the Ebola virus, Zika virus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The WHO aims to create a process that will help identify which viruses and bacteria need a high level of research investment and which are most likely to cause an epidemic or a pandemic. The list will be based on both scientific criteria and social and economic impacts and access to healthcare.
At the Francis Crick Institute, our scientists are using their expertise to tackle this challenge by bringing together experts from different fields. They focus on three areas — improving our understanding of how these viruses infect and cause disease, tracking new variants as they emerge, and turning this knowledge into novel treatments and vaccines.
Our experts also work to build trust and communicate with their communities to prevent the panic that can occur during a pandemic. They say that, just like it’s not just the fire department that keeps communities safe from a fire, it takes everyone to build an effective public health response to prevent a pandemic.