The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified a new pathogen — calling it only “Disease X” — that has “the potential to spread and kill millions but for which there are currently no, or insufficient, countermeasures available,” according to news reports published Saturday.
Disease X is what military planners call a “known unknown,” The Telegraph reports, and is caused by a “a biological mutation, or perhaps an accident or terror attack, that catches the world by surprise and spreads fast.”
The WHO included the pathogen on a list released two weeks ago of nine “infectious diseases and the epidemics they spawn” that are “inherently unpredictable,” according to the report.
“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown,” the WHO said in its report.
The organization’s objective, by including Disease X on the list, is to “ensure that the global health community builds the resilience and capacity needed to tackle all threats — not just the predictable ones,” according to the Telegraph.
While Disease X’s origins are unknown, WHO experts say that its most probable source is “zoonotic diseases, or Zoonoses” that are present in wild and domesticated animals that can be transmitted to humans.
Two such “Zoonoses” are Ebola and HIV, which both had their origins in animals, according to the report.
With Disease X, domestic livestock are the most likely incubators, as large groups of farm animals housed close together “create ideal breeding conditions for zoonotic disease.”
The viruses constantly mutate and travel rapidly from wild animals to farm animals — and then to humans.
“They can be spread by ticks, but the fastest moving are airborne,” the Telegraph reports.
To combat Disease X, the WHO has enlisted its longtime weapon: “preparedness,” which includes “improving disease surveillance” and strengthening local health systems worldwide.
Through the methods, the WHO “aims to spot an outbreak early, contain it and kill it off before it spreads,” according to the Telegraph.
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia of the Boston University Medical Center likened the effort to a city building dams or seawalls for flood protection.
“Not helping strengthen international capacity to combat infectious diseases is like refusing to build barriers against the tide in some parts of our ‘global city’ and expecting to be protected when the flood comes.”