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Disease X: The Unknown Threat That Could Cause the Next Pandemic

Disease X is not a specific disease, but a term used by the World Health Organization (WHO) to describe a hypothetical, unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic or a global pandemic.

The WHO introduced the concept of Disease X in 2018, as part of its list of blueprint priority diseases, which are diseases that pose a high risk of public health emergencies and have no or insufficient countermeasures.

The purpose of including Disease X in the list was to acknowledge the possibility of a new and emerging infectious disease that could emerge from anywhere and at any time, and to encourage the development of flexible and adaptable preparedness and response strategies.

In this blog post, we will explore what Disease X is, why it is important, and what we can do to prevent or mitigate its impact.

What is Disease X?

Disease X is a placeholder name for an unknown pathogen that could cause a future epidemic or pandemic. It could be a new virus, bacterium, fungus, parasite, or prion that jumps from animals to humans, or a known pathogen that mutates or recombines to become more transmissible, virulent, or resistant to existing treatments.

Some examples of diseases that could potentially become Disease X are:

  • Avian influenza (bird flu): A highly contagious and deadly viral infection that affects birds and can occasionally infect humans. There are several strains of bird flu, such as H5N1 and H7N9, that have caused sporadic outbreaks in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The risk of a pandemic increases if these viruses acquire the ability to spread easily from person to person.
  • Ebola virus disease: A severe and often fatal hemorrhagic fever that affects humans and other primates. It is caused by a group of viruses that are endemic in Africa. Ebola outbreaks occur when people come into contact with infected animals or bodily fluids of infected people. The virus can spread rapidly through direct contact, contaminated surfaces, or aerosols.
  • Zika virus disease: A mild or asymptomatic infection that is transmitted by mosquitoes or sexual contact. It is mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The main concern of Zika is its association with microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads and brain damage, and other neurological disorders in infants and adults.

Why is Disease X important?

Disease X is important because it represents the uncertainty and unpredictability of infectious disease threats in the 21st century. The emergence and spread of Disease X could have devastating consequences for human health, social and economic stability, and global security.

Some of the factors that increase the likelihood and impact of Disease X are:

  • Globalization and urbanization: The movement of people, animals, and goods across borders and continents facilitates the introduction and dissemination of pathogens. The growth of megacities and slums creates crowded and unsanitary conditions that favor the transmission of infectious diseases.
  • Climate change and environmental degradation: The alteration of natural habitats and ecosystems disrupts the balance between wildlife and pathogens, and increases the exposure of humans to zoonotic diseases. The changes in temperature, precipitation, and seasonality affect the distribution and abundance of vectors, such as mosquitoes and ticks, that carry infectious agents.
  • Antimicrobial resistance and vaccine hesitancy: The overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in humans and animals leads to the emergence and spread of resistant strains of bacteria, fungi, and parasites. The lack of adherence to vaccination programs and the spread of misinformation and distrust erodes the immunity of populations and increases the risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases.

What can we do to prevent or mitigate Disease X?

The prevention and mitigation of Disease X requires a coordinated and collaborative effort from multiple sectors and stakeholders, including governments, international organizations, research institutions, health care providers, civil society, and the general public.

Some of the actions that can be taken to prevent or mitigate Disease X are:

  • Strengthening surveillance and early detection: The timely identification and reporting of potential outbreaks of Disease X is essential for initiating effective response measures and preventing further spread. This requires the establishment and maintenance of robust and integrated surveillance systems, the enhancement of laboratory and diagnostic capacities, and the promotion of data sharing and communication among national and international partners.
  • Developing and deploying countermeasures: The development and deployment of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics for Disease X is crucial for reducing morbidity and mortality and containing outbreaks. This requires the advancement of scientific research and innovation, the acceleration of regulatory and ethical approvals, and the improvement of access and affordability of these products.
  • Implementing prevention and control measures: The implementation of prevention and control measures for Disease X is vital for interrupting the transmission and reducing the impact of the disease. This includes the application of standard and additional precautions, such as hand hygiene, personal protective equipment, isolation and quarantine, contact tracing and testing, and social distancing, as well as the enforcement of public health policies and regulations, such as travel restrictions, lockdowns, and closures.
  • Enhancing preparedness and resilience: The enhancement of preparedness and resilience for Disease X is key for minimizing the disruption and damage caused by the disease. This involves the development and implementation of national and regional plans and strategies, the allocation and mobilization of resources and capacities, the engagement and empowerment of communities and individuals, and the coordination and collaboration of multisectoral and multilateral actors.


Q: Is covid-19 Disease X?

A: Covid-19, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is considered by some experts to be the first Disease X, as it emerged unexpectedly and rapidly spread around the world, causing a global pandemic. However, covid-19 is not the only or the last Disease X, as there could be other unknown pathogens that could pose a similar or greater threat in the future.

Q: How can I protect myself and others from Disease X?

A: The best way to protect yourself and others from Disease X is to follow the recommendations and guidelines of the WHO and your local health authorities, which may vary depending on the specific situation and context. Some of the general measures that you can take are:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze, and dispose of the used tissue safely.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Wear a mask or a face covering when you are in public places where physical distancing is not possible or where it is required.
  • Maintain a distance of at least 1 meter (3 feet) from others who are not from your household or bubble.
  • Stay home if you are sick or have symptoms of Disease X, and seek medical attention if needed.
  • Get vaccinated against Disease X if and when a vaccine is available and recommended for you.
  • Follow the advice of your health care provider and take any prescribed medications as directed.
  • Avoid contact with sick animals or animal products, and practice good food safety and hygiene.
  • Stay informed and updated on the latest information and developments regarding Disease X.

Q: Where can I find more information about Disease X?

A: You can find more information about Disease X from the following sources:

  • The WHO website: []
  • The WHO R&D Blueprint website: []
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website: []
  • The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) website: []
  • The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center: []


Disease X is a term used by the WHO to describe a hypothetical, unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic or a global pandemic. It is important to be aware of the possibility and the potential impact of Disease X, as well as the factors that increase its likelihood and severity. The prevention and mitigation of Disease X requires a coordinated and collaborative effort from multiple sectors and stakeholders, including scientific research, public health, policy, and communication. By being prepared and resilient, we can reduce the risk and the damage of Disease X, and protect ourselves and others from this unknown threat.

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