Disease X: Vaccine on works, is there a new pandemic threat
In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is now looking towards a potential new threat known as Disease X. British scientists are leading an initiative to develop a Disease X vaccine, a project with global implications. The following article explores this mysterious pathogen, the research efforts in the UK, potential sources of Disease X, global backing, the reasoning behind the research, and the imminent risk of another pandemic.
What is Disease X?
Disease X is a placeholder term coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018. It represents an unknown pathogen that could cause a severe international epidemic. British scientists are spearheading efforts at Porton Down, the UK's only facility capable of developing a Disease X vaccine, aiming to halt a lethal pandemic within 100 days of its emergence.
“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease,” The WHO stated.
Following the disclosure from Porton Down about the Disease X vaccine, Professor Dame Jenny Harries, who leads the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), shared information with Sky News:
“What we’re trying to do here is ensure that we prepare so that if we have a new Disease X, a new pathogen, we have done as much of that work in advance as possible. Hopefully we can prevent it [a pandemic]. But if we can’t and we have to respond, then we have already started developing vaccines and therapeutics to crack it.”
The British initiative for Disease X vaccine
Porton Down's top-secret laboratory's mission is to enhance pandemic readiness and engineer prototype vaccines for Disease X. Over 200 scientists are working on more than 100 projects, monitoring various high-risk pathogens such as bird flu, monkeypox, and hantavirus. The British government, along with international investors, has committed over £1.15 billion ($1.5 billion) to create a Disease X vaccine, and the laboratory space has been expanded to accelerate research.
Experts warn that the next pandemic could be triggered by a variety of sources. Bird flu is often cited due to the risk of recombination. There are also speculations about zoonotic transmission, where an animal virus makes the leap to humans, or that Disease X could result from biological mutation, accident, or even a terror attack.
In addition, the rising resistance to antibiotics in bacteria could metamorphose into Disease X. In response, Porton Down is also focusing on antibiotic resistance, emphasizing the pressing need for a Disease X vaccine.
Disease X vaccine backed globally
Global commitment towards the Disease X vaccine has been substantial. Along with the UK, countries like the United States, Japan, Germany, Australia, Norway, and private entities like the Gates Foundation have invested in combating Disease X. Research capacity has dramatically increased, and the number of scientists at the UKHSA's Porton Down site has surged by 50% since 2020.
The research on Disease X is seen as a critical response to ever-increasing global threats. Climate change, urbanization, and closer proximity between humans and animals are heightening risks. Early clinical trials are also underway for vaccines against other diseases that may spread further with climate change, such as Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
The risk of a new pandemic
Prof. Harries, the chief of the UK Health Security Agency, has elucidated that global risks are rising due to factors like urbanization and climate change. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has reported alarming developments, with at least 30,000 seabirds succumbing to a virulent strain of the H5N1 virus around the UK. The UKHSA has begun monitoring those in close contact with birds and aims to create a vaccine within 100 days of identifying a new pathogen with pandemic potential.
The development of a Disease X vaccine raises questions, as vaccines usually require a specific pathogen. It remains unclear whether the goal is to construct a physical vaccine or prepare humanity for a potential global pandemic, similar to COVID-19.
The concept of Disease X and the pursuit of a Disease X vaccine present a complex and urgent issue. With the memory of COVID-19 still fresh, the world is taking steps to anticipate and mitigate the next global health threat.
The conundrum surrounding the creation of a vaccine for an entity as enigmatic as Disease X presents an intricate challenge. The essence of traditional vaccine development relies on the manipulation of a known pathogen's structure, often involving its attenuated form or genetic material.
How, then, does one embark on crafting a vaccine for a disease that has yet to be identified or understood? Is the pursuit of a Disease X vaccine an endeavor to produce a tangible medical solution, or rather a strategic preparation for an impending pandemic, reminiscent of the global crisis instigated by COVID-19? The underlying motives and feasibility of this initiative are shrouded in ambiguity, provoking thoughtful consideration and debate.