Mya Care Blogger 12 Feb 2024

In recent years, the world has seen the devastating effects of several infectious outbreaks, including Influenza, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19. These viral attacks raise many questions:

  • When will the next outbreak arrive?
  • What threat will the next deadly virus pose to the world?
  • Are we prepared?

Scientists and health officials attempt to answer these questions by devising protective guidelines and proactive strategies against 'Disease X.'

Disease X is a term employed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to illustrate a hypothetical disease that could cause the next global pandemic.[1] It is a placeholder that represents any unknown pathogen that could emerge and cause a global pandemic.[2]

While not a specific disease with symptoms, Disease X is not a conspiracy theory either. It is a real concept that is taken seriously by the scientific community.

Disease X was first introduced in 2018 when the WHO released its list of priority diseases for research and development of new vaccines and other strategies. The list included known diseases such as Ebola, Zika, and SARS, yet also included a new category for "Disease X." This was a recognition that there will always be new and unknown pathogens that could threaten global health.

WHO Pandemic Preparedness Treaty

The WHO introduced the idea of a pandemic treaty in March 2021[3] following the outbreak of COVID-19.

The Pandemic Preparedness Treaty is a significant global initiative aimed at strengthening global cooperation and response to future pandemics, especially those of a respiratory nature.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and organizations worldwide recognize the need for a comprehensive framework to address global health emergencies effectively. The proposal gained support from numerous countries and organizations worldwide.

Since the treaty's proposal, consultation is ongoing between member states, experts, and stakeholders to gather input and ensure broad participation in its development.

In the following months, negotiations took place to determine the content and scope of the treaty. These negotiations involved discussions on critical aspects such as sharing data, vaccines, and other medical resources and cooperation in early detection and response to pandemics.

Meetings are currently underway.[4] The WHO aims to resolve all disputes and make final refinements to the treaty as soon as possible. Finalizing the treaty would make it an official international agreement endorsed by member states.

Treaty Objectives

The treaty aims to achieve the following objectives:

  1. Strengthening preparedness for pandemics of an unknown origin through early detection, rapid response, and effective coordination.
  2. Encouraging international cooperation, knowledge sharing, and resource mobilization to prevent, detect, and respond to pandemics.
  3. Ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics to protect vulnerable populations globally.
  4. Robust monitoring and evaluation to identify gaps and improve pandemic management strategies.

Establishing a global treaty on pandemic preparedness strives to construct a unified and coordinated approach to prevent future pandemics, mitigate their impact, and protect public health globally.

Pandemic Stages

The WHO International Health Regulations for pandemic control form the basic model for the treaty, developed in 2005.

The stages of a pandemic from this model are as follows[5]:

  • Stage 1: No Transmission

During this stage, there is no human-to-human transmission of the virus causing the pandemic. The virus may exist in animals or the environment, but no reported human cases exist.

  • Stage 2: Alert

During this stage, an unknown virus emerges that can cause human infections. There may be sporadic cases or small clusters of infections but no sustained human-to-human transmission. Increased surveillance and monitoring are crucial to detect any potential spread.

  • Stage 3: Limited Human-to-Human Transmission

In this stage, the virus spreads through limited human-to-human transmission. The transmission is usually localized, occurring within specific communities or regions. Control measures, such as contact tracing and isolation, are implemented to contain the spread.

  • Stage 4: Community Transmission

The virus spreads within communities of at least two countries in one WHO region, making it hard to trace or control individual cases. Non-pharmaceutical interventions like social distancing and hygiene are crucial.

  • Stage 5: Widespread Transmission

The virus spreads widely to additional countries or continents, causing an exponential rise in cases and straining healthcare systems. International coordination is crucial to slow down the spread.

  • Stage 6: Post-Peak Decline

This stage marks the decline in cases after the pandemic peak. Control measures, public health interventions, and natural immunity help lower transmission. Vigilance is needed to prevent a resurgence, and it is necessary to prepare for any new waves.

Why is it Important to be Prepared for Unknown Pathogens

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the devastating effects of a global health crisis. It has also highlighted the importance of being prepared for unknown pathogens.

Here are some reasons why preparing for Disease X and other emerging infectious diseases is crucial.

Unpredictability of Novel Pathogens

As we have seen with COVID-19, potentially lethal novel pathogens can emerge spontaneously, causing a significant global health threat and crisis.

Viruses, in particular, can mutate rapidly and threaten public safety. Viral outbreaks, such as Ebola and Zika, have caused significant health crises in recent years.

By being prepared for unknown pathogens, scientists can react in time and effectively to prevent the spread of the disease. Being prepared includes making provision for ongoing research into the nature of viral mutation, vaccination efficacy, and widespread implementation.

Containing Rapid Zoonotic Transmission

Many emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, are zoonotic diseases transmitted from animals to humans. According to the WHO, zoonotic diseases are continually circulating, especially among birds. The large diversity of animals on the planet adds to the understanding that outbreaks can occur anytime.

The current pandemic treaty framework considers zoonotic disease outbreaks a warning sign for a possible human outbreak. By being prepared for unknown pathogens, scientists can better predict the transmission of zoonotic diseases and formulate strategies to avert future outbreaks.

Global Interconnectedness

The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, making spreading diseases globally easier. Acting as quickly as possible is essential to pandemic preparedness, as it helps keep outbreaks contained and prevent a global health crisis.

Minimizing Pandemic Consequences

The more prepared the world is for future outbreaks, the easier it is to keep them contained and prevent the consequences of a global health crisis. Preparedness minimizes the widespread damages associated with past pandemics, including historical plagues and the recent COVID-19 emergency.

The health consequences of a prolonged pandemic are evident, with numerous individuals contracting infections that possess the potential for lifelong illness and fatality in those susceptible.

The health, social, and economic consequences of a pandemic are extensive and include:

  • A high burden on healthcare systems, resulting in delayed care, diagnosis, and treatments
  • Widespread job loss, employee downtime, and supply chain disruption
  • An increase in social isolation and mental health issues
  • A pause on schooling and education
  • Fear, panic, and misinformation

According to an EU review of the social-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevention measures successfully avoided a cataclysmic economic collapse.[6]

Having adequate prevention measures in place can help minimize the consequences at each step of a pandemic. If followed correctly, the damages can stay confined to small regions.

How Scientists Are Preparing for the Next Pandemic

The WHO and other global health organizations are taking proactive measures to prepare for the next pandemic, including Disease X.

Here are some ways scientists prepare for the next global health threat[7].

Early Warning and Surveillance

One of the most crucial aspects of pandemic preparedness is early warning and surveillance. Health surveillance involves monitoring for unusual or unexpected disease outbreaks and quickly identifying the cause.

There is an urgent need to strengthen public health surveillance systems, which track and report disease outbreaks worldwide. AI integration can offer real-time data and analyze outbreak trends with high precision. Additionally, research is ongoing to improve the testing and diagnosis of unknown pathogens.[8]

The WHO has also established the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), a network of experts and institutions that work together to respond to disease outbreaks. This early warning and surveillance system allows for a rapid response to potential pandemics, reducing the risk of a global spread.

Vaccine Development

Vaccines are one of the most compelling techniques to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases[9]. As such, vaccine development is a crucial aspect of pandemic preparedness. The WHO has identified Disease X as one of their priority diseases for vaccine research and development.

By investing in research and development for potential vaccines, scientists can be better prepared to respond to a new and unknown pathogen. Medical advancements can significantly diminish the impact of a potential pandemic and save countless lives.

Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies

Another essential aspect of pandemic preparedness is understanding the risk factors and developing prevention strategies. Prevention measures involve studying the transmission of diseases, identifying high-risk populations, and implementing measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists quickly identified that the virus primarily spread through respiratory droplets. This discovery led to the implementation of measures such as wearing face coverings and social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease.

Global Health Cooperation

Pandemic preparedness requires global cooperation and collaboration. The WHO works closely with governments, health organizations, and other stakeholders to invent and execute strategies for pandemic preparedness.

How Can We Protect Ourselves from Disease X?

While global health officials and policymakers optimize prevention measures for future pandemics, the public can remain informed of outbreaks and follow safety precautions.

Here are ten prime measures individuals can take to prevent a potential Disease X outbreak:

  1. Wash your hands often. When washing, wash using soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after coughing, sneezing, or entering public areas. Carry hand sanitizer with you in case soap and water are unavailable.
  2. Follow guidelines and information from local health authorities or reputable sources.
  3. Avoid spreading or believing misinformation, and be cautious of sensational news.
  4. Follow local health guidelines regarding the use of face masks. When physical distancing is challenging, wear a mask.
  5. When you cough or sneeze, ensure you use a tissue or your elbow to cover your nose and mouth. Remember to dispose of tissues correctly and cleanse your hands afterward.
  6. Maintain at least a 1-meter social distance from other people, especially in crowded  places or when interacting with people outside your household.
  7. Follow travel advisories and recommendations from health authorities. Limit non-essential travel, especially to areas experiencing outbreaks.
  8. Participate in vaccination campaigns and other public health initiatives to prevent disease spread.
  9. Follow recommended immunization schedules and encourage others to do the same.
  10. Stay vigilant for symptoms associated with Disease X or other potential pandemics. If you notice a fever, cough, breathing issues, or other similar symptoms, seek medical advice and follow quarantine guidance provided by healthcare professionals.

Remember, individual actions collectively contribute to the overall public health response. By practicing good hygiene, following public health guidelines, and supporting community efforts, individuals can help protect themselves and others from the potential risks of Disease X or future pandemics.


Disease X may be a hypothetical disease, but it is a real threat that scientists take seriously. Investing in early warning and surveillance, vaccine development, and global health cooperation can prepare us better for the next pandemic. It is crucial to prioritize pandemic preparedness to protect public health and prevent future global health crises.

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