Global health experts believe that the next major pandemic is already underway, and it has the potential to claim millions more lives than Covid-19. The arrival of Disease X, as designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is not a mere possibility but a looming probability, with the potential to strike at any moment.
WHO contends that in order to combat this impending threat, vaccines must be swiftly developed and distributed. However, as with the previous pandemic, there is no assurance that this will occur. WHO further emphasizes that the catastrophic consequences of Disease X are likely to surpass those of Covid-19, for which the world was woefully unprepared when it struck in early 2020. Kate Bingham, who chaired the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce from May to December of that year, warns against complacency simply because Covid-19 is now “largely regarded as a routine illness.”
Dame Kate, aged 57, issued a stark warning in the Mail, stating, “Let me put it this way: the 1918–19 flu pandemic claimed the lives of at least 50 million people globally, twice the number lost in World War I. Today, a similar death toll could be expected from one of the numerous viruses already in existence. Currently, there are more viruses actively replicating and mutating than all other life forms on our planet combined. Naturally, not all of them pose a threat to humans, but many do.”
Kate revealed that scientists are presently aware of 25 virus families, each comprising thousands of individual viruses, all possessing the potential to evolve into a pandemic. Additionally, it is estimated that approximately a million undiscovered viruses may be lurking, capable of leaping between species and potentially causing the deaths of millions of humans.
She continued, “In a sense, we were fortunate with Covid-19, despite it causing the deaths of 20 million or more individuals worldwide. The majority of those infected with the virus managed to recover. Now, imagine Disease X being as infectious as measles but with a fatality rate similar to Ebola (67%). Somewhere in the world, it is replicating, and sooner or later, someone will begin to feel unwell.”
Kate attributes the rise in pandemics to three key factors: globalization, urban overpopulation, and deforestation. These factors have created “ideal conditions” for viruses to jump between species.
She emphasized, “We must take immediate steps to address the impending pandemic, which involves allocating funds. However, there is minimal evidence to suggest that we are willing to allocate resources proportionate to the threat posed by real viruses – those capable of causing our demise. The financial cost of inaction is monumental. After all, even Covid-19, which is milder than Disease X, left us with a bill of $16 trillion in lost productivity and public health expenditure.”
Kate stressed the importance of developing a range of “prototype vaccines for every virus family that poses a threat” before the next pandemic emerges. With this “head start,” vaccines could be tailored to target the specific characteristics of Disease X, a feat that is “entirely achievable.”