An unknown and deadly new illness dubbed Disease X has been added to the list of potential global epidemics that could potentially kills millions.
Each year scientists with the World Health Organisation (WHO) create a list of the most likely diseases to break out into a worldwide pandemic.
This year, among the familiar Ebola, SARS, and Zika viruses is the new name of Disease X.
And unlike the other pathogens, it is not known what causes Disease X or how doctors could try to treat it.
Researchers said that they added Disease X to the threat list to recognise the fact that the next deadly pandemic could be started by an illness that has not caused any problems before.
“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”
Norwegian scientist and WHO adviser John-Arne Rottingen said that it was likely the next outbreak would be “something we have not seen before”.
“It may seem strange to be adding an ‘X’ but the point is to make sure we prepare and plan flexibly in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
Disease X could even be man-made, rather than a fluke of nature. There are growing fears that the use and development of chemical and biological weapons are on the rise. In Syria’s bloody civil war chemical bombs have been dropped on civilians on numerous occasions.
And closer to home, the police have confirmed that a nerve agent, probably created in a lab by state-sponsored scientists as a targeted weapon, was used to attack the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury this week.
Last year North Korea is believed to have used the nerve agent VX to assassinate the half-brother of dictator Kim Jong-Un in an airport in a Malaysian airport.
Mr Rottingen said that the man-made viruses and diseases were especially dangerous because humans have not built up any resistance over time to them, leaving them free to sweep across the globe before governments and doctors can catch up.
“Synthetic biology allows for the creation of deadly new viruses. It is also the case that where you have a new disease there is no resistance in the population and that means it can spread fast.”
But it was just as possible that Disease X could spring up from the natural world, just as previous deadly epidemics such as Spanish Flu or HIV.
“The intensity of animal and human contact is becoming much greater as the world develops. This makes it more likely new diseases will emerge but also modern travel and trade make it much more likely they will spread,” the WHO adviser Professor Marion Koopmans told The Daily Telegraph.
Some of the proven killers on the list, such as Zika or SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) caught the world by surprise when they first arose and killed hundreds or even thousands before they were brought under control. Before scientists became familiar with these threats, they to would have been considered a Disease X.
The WHO hopes that formally adding a future Disease X to the list will push countries and researchers to redouble their efforts to create protections against unknown epidemics.
But more common diseases could also cause devastation. Yesterday, the WHO warned that the next global flu epidemic could begin “tomorrow” and kill as many as 33 million people in just 200 days.
Jonathan Quick, chairman of the Global Health Council and a project leader for the World Health Organisation, has written a new book, Ending Epidemics: The Looming Threat To Humanity And How To Stop It.
Giving a stark warning, he said: “With disrupted supply of food and medicines and without enough survivors to run computer or energy systems, the global economy would collapse.
“Starvation and looting could lay waste to parts of the world “It’s a disaster movie night. Yet it is waiting to come true thanks to influenza, the most diabolical viral killer known to humankind.”
Exactly 100 years ago the Spanish Flu outbreak swept around the world, killing about 100 million people around the world, more than the four years of the First World War which had only just finished.
Celebrities and oridinary citizens were struck down alike. In America, which was hit particularly hard, so many people died there was no space left in morgues and families often had to dig their own graves.
Quick said that while there were lots of precautions governments could take to stop future epidemics, most countries were ignoring the threat.
“The good news is that there is much we can do to prevent this. The bad news is that much of it is not being done. We are just as vulnerable now as we were 100 years ago.”
Dr Greg Poland, an expert in viruses as the Mayo Clinic? – Q, another global flu crisis was “100 per cent” certain.
He said: “We will have another pandemic. What’s unpredictable is the severity of it.
“When you begin to feel comfortable, you’re well on the road to bad things happening.”
Credit: Mirror UK