Disease X deadlier than Covid could be around the corner, UK scientist warns

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Another pandemic-causing Disease X could potentially be around the corner and it is a matter of when, not if, a leading scientist has warned.

However, it is difficult to tell when such a disease may emerge, and the precise mechanism of how it comes out is always unpredictable.

Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said that while pandemic flu is at the top of the list for outbreaks to be concerned about, there is a whole range of other viruses to be aware of.

He told the PA news agency that in 2017, he and some colleagues got the World Health Organisation (WHO) to add something called Disease X to its list of priority diseases.

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"We thought that the next emerging pandemic might be a virus that we don't even know about yet – quite frankly we thought it was the most likely scenario," he explained.

Prof Woolhouse added that in a meeting the following year experts considered what the disease might be, and one possibility they came up with was a novel coronavirus related to Mers or Sars.

He told PA: "I mean, it really couldn't be more accurate than that. This new virus is so closely related to Sars, so they absolutely pinpointed it as one of the threats."

Asked if the next Disease X could potentially be around the corner, Prof Woolhouse said "absolutely".

Speaking independently, he said: "You could use the phrase 'it is when, not if'.

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"We can't put a handle on when, of course. The precise mechanism by which a virus comes out is always extremely unpredictable.

"You can never predict precise events, so you have to do it on sort of statistical grounds probability."

Prof Woolhouse told PA that every year or two scientists are discovering maybe one or two viruses that are transmissible to humans, and the rate has been constant for more than 50 years.

He added: "That's going to keep happening. It's picking up the ones that are actually going to cause the next pandemic out of this constant trickle of new viruses that's coming along.

"Occasionally one comes along, so spotting the rare event is always hard."

Asked if there was now a greater appetite among policy makers to be aware of the risk of future pandemics, Prof Woolhouse said: "I'm not sure that there's a lot of thinking going on about the next threat, while the world is concentrating full tilt on dealing with the one it's got.

"I absolutely agree that there needs to be more thought about that."

He added that it was not that the UK did not have any plans, and actually had "pretty mature and sophisticated plans" to react to the next pandemic influenza.

"Unfortunately, I like to put it, we did a lot of work, we did our revision, we went into the exam room, and they gave us the wrong paper.

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"We were all prepared to meet the pandemic flu, and we got something else.

"And that I think for me is the big lesson – I have tried to push this for many years now – is don't be overly prescriptive about what you think's going to come next.

"Be broad-minded, open-minded about and look at the range of possibilities.

"We absolutely do need to be more aware of these events, but I think this game of trying to guess what it will be is very risky.

"We just played it, and it didn't do us any favours. We prepared, as I say, for the wrong exam, and we don't want to do that next time."

The comments come as this week marks a year since the first coronavirus cases were reported in the UK, and the anniversary of the first known death in the country.

January 30 also marks one year since the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) over Covid-19.

  • World Health Organisation
  • Coronavirus

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