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Sunday 31 May 2020

Disease X: A yet unborn threat to mankind

Disease X does not exist; at least not yet; it could be the WHO’s attempt at answering the R&D woes that are stressed beyond measure in times of crisis; the agency wants to be prepared

New Delhi: The 2018 annual review of the blueprint list of priority diseases released by the WHO this year is unique. Because this list contains an abominable nomenclature “Disease X”.

To put things in perspective, the WHO addresses public health emergency contexts every year by releasing a list of diseases expected to gain an epidemic status. Research and development are thus directed to these diseases to preempt and prevent fatalities as much as possible. Every year, the list is updated. However, this has mostly been a “lesson learnt” exercise really, where the diseases enter the hallowed hall of fame only after having left their mark on the human race. Thus we have diseases like MERS, Lassa Fever, Ebola, Zika virus and so on. This is where “Disease X” is a deviation.

Because Disease X does not exist; at least not yet! To a cynic, this might appear as the WHO’s dystopian view of the world, a dark outlook of what the future may hold. But to be fair, it could also be the WHO’s attempt at answering the R&D woes that are stressed beyond measure in times of such crisis. This time, the WHO wants to be prepared.

So, let us look at this new expected disease. What is it really? To quote the WHO, “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.” This essentially translates into keeping the net as wide as possible to include as many possibilities of diseases. The solution is to manufacture vaccines and medications that can act on a multitude of diseases or can be customised to act on a specific disease. In the terms of the lay, it is akin to making parts of machines ready, which can be cobbled up into a multitude of machines as per the specific requirements.

Let us now look at this sudden alarm and try and decipher why this radical move by the WHO.

Scientific advancements

Newer techniques to tweak the genetic pool have, like gene editing technologies, opened gateways to the risk of deliberate or inadvertent creation of newer and more deadly diseases.

Historical evidence

Diseases have arisen in the past when humanity least expected them and we have had to pay a heavy price in terms of morbidity and mortality.

Changes to the ecosystem

Human intervention has changed the ecosystem in a way that has increased the probability of the introduction of new pathogens. Also, diseases skipping from animals to humans is becoming a potential risk.

Increasingly globalised world

Travelling has become a part and parcel of our lives today and the increased human traffic only helps a disease to become a pandemic within no time. Case in point: the latest Ebola outbreak.

It is a foregone conclusion that the next disease outbreak is just around the corner. WHO realises this and has taken a radical step to counter it. The success of this step can only be judged in the future, but this definitely is a step in the right direction.

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Chaitali Bhattacharjee
PhD in molecular biology, former Young Scientist, working in the life science and healthcare industry since 2007

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