In the aftermath of the global trauma of COVID-19, humanity may be faced with a new potential threat: Disease X. Indeed, the work has already begun on a Disease X vaccine.
Disease X vaccine under works
Today, health officials disclosed that British scientists are at the forefront of an effort to formulate a vaccine that could stop the next lethal pandemic within 100 days of its emergence.
In a revealing announcement about the new top-secret laboratory at Porton Down, it’s clear that the mission is to enhance readiness for pandemics and engineer prototype vaccines to confront Disease X when it emerges.
In collaboration with scholars and the private sector, this location stands as the sole facility in the UK capable of developing a Disease X vaccine from conception to completion. But the questions remain: What exactly is Disease X, and why are the UK’s top scientists devoted to creating a vaccine for a disease that’s still unknown?
What is Disease X?
Disease X symbolizes a theoretical, presently unidentified pathogen. The World Health Organization embraced this placeholder term in 2018 to guarantee their planning was adequately adaptable to respond to an unforeseen disease.
“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease,” The WHO states.
In the wake of the Porton Down announcement regarding the Disease X vaccine, Professor Dame Jenny Harries, the chief of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), confided in 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.”
At a glance:
- Disease X is a term coined by the World Health Organization for an unknown pathogen that could cause a future pandemic, and scientists worldwide are working to develop a vaccine in preparation.
- British scientists at a top-secret lab in Porton Down are leading the effort to create a vaccine that could halt a lethal pandemic within 100 days of its emergence, focusing on various high-risk pathogens.
- While there are several theories on what might become Disease X, from bird flu to antibiotic resistance, the exact nature of this potential threat remains unknown, and it could emerge from various sources, including biological mutation or zoonotic transmission.
- Countries and organizations around the world have committed over $1.5 billion, with additional investments from private entities, to support the creation of a Disease X vaccine, significantly boosting research capacity and collaboration.
- Concerns over global migration, climate change, urbanization, and close proximity between humans and animals are heightening the risks, emphasizing the urgent need for preparedness, as seen in the rapid response to COVID-19 and the readiness to counter emerging global health threats.
Potential sources of Disease X
For many years, experts have cautioned that bird flu could be the most probable catalyst for setting off the next pandemic. This risk is often attributed to the threat of recombination, where elevated levels of human flu increase the likelihood of a co-infection with avian flu.
There has been ongoing speculation that Disease X could more broadly emerge from zoonotic transmission, where an animal virus or bacteria makes the leap to humans. Others have raised alarms that Disease X could be ignited by a biological mutation, an accident, or even a terror attack, catching the globe unprepared and spreading rapidly.
In September 2019, the by-now obsolete Public Health England alerted that the rising resistance to antibiotics in bacteria might also metamorphose into a potential Disease X. In response, the Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre at Porton Down has broadened its scope to tackle the work, emphasizing the pressing need for a Disease X vaccine.
Initially, the focus of the center was directed towards COVID, specifically evaluating the efficacy of vaccines against new variants. However, the center’s attention has expanded, with over 200 scientists at the top-secret Porton Down laboratory, operated by the UK Government, now working on more than 100 projects.
These scientists are now engaged in monitoring various high-risk pathogens, such as bird flu, monkeypox, and hantavirus – a disease transmitted by rodents. Leading researchers at the site recently announced their readiness to deploy tools needed if the H5N1 bird flu strain were to become prevalent in humans. This comes at a time when the largest ever outbreak of avian influenza is sweeping across the globe, igniting worries that it could make the leap to humans.
While the H5N1 strain is not currently known to transmit easily between humans, some experts are concerned that mutations could facilitate mammal-to-mammal transmission, thus altering the landscape. Earlier this year, British scientists simulated worst-case scenarios in which the virus could kill up to one in 20 people if it were to successfully spread among humans.
Although officials emphasized that this figure was only for “planning purposes” and not an actual forecast, the urgency for a Disease X vaccine becomes clear, especially considering that globally, fewer than 900 human cases of H5N1 have ever been recorded, with a fatality rate of up to 50% among those infected.
Disease X vaccine is backed by multiple countries
Globally, nations are rallying to face the potential threat of Disease X, with commitments totaling $1.5 billion (£1.15 billion) to fuel the creation of a Disease X vaccine. Alongside the UK government’s pledge of £160 million ($210 million), contributions have also come from the United States, Japan, Germany, Australia, and Norway, along with investments from private entities like the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to combat Disease X.
With the expansion of new laboratory space at Porton Down, the capacity for research has significantly increased. This enhancement grants scientists additional resources to focus on the viruses that pose the most immediate threat. Notably, the number of scientists dedicated to vaccines at the UKHSA’s Porton Down site has surged by 50% since 2020, reflecting greater investment in both human resources and technology.
In a testament to these advances, UK scientists now have the ability to test against a diverse array of diseases, examining 3,000 samples each week. This stands in stark contrast to their capabilities before the onset of COVID, when they were limited to 100 samples per week. Such progress accentuates the urgency and collective efforts being made to develop a Disease X vaccine.
Understanding why UK scientists are researching a vaccine for an unknown disease
In the face of ever-increasing global threats, scientists are pointing to global migration as a major contributing factor. The closer proximity between people and animals, along with the impact of global warming, is elevating the risks of pathogens spreading through vectors like mosquitoes and ticks into previously unaffected regions, including the UK.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, offered a stark assessment of the situation.
He said: “We know climate change drives the emergence of new bacteria and viruses into our environment. And we also have urbanisation. As a result of humans moving more into animal habitats, we increase the risk of that happening.”
Further detailing the looming threat, he told Sky News: “As we saw with Covid, people crowded together make spread much more likely. We’re currently at about 8 billion people on the planet. And over the next 30 years or so we’re going to move to more than 10 billion.”
Adding to its prominence in researching the Disease X vaccine, Porton Down stands as one of only a few laboratories worldwide equipped to investigate highly potent viruses and bacteria, such as Ebola.
Early clinical trials are underway for what could be a groundbreaking vaccine against Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a virus transmitted through tick bites that proves fatal for around one-third of those infected.
Found in regions like Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Asia, the potential for this disease to spread further with climate change underscores the urgency in the fight against these emerging global health threats.
Are we at risk of a new pandemic?
In an insightful conversation with Sky News, Prof Harries elucidated that climate change and shifts in population are heightening the likelihood of another global pandemic, emphasizing the need for timely action on a Disease X vaccine.
“What we’re seeing is a rising risk globally. Some of that is because of things like urbanisation where you may get virus jumping into humans [living close-by], as we’ve seen with bird flu. And some of it is because of climate change where you get things like ticks and mosquitoes moving to where it was previously cold and is now becoming increasingly warm. So this is a growing risk agenda. But it’s one we can use our science actively to prevent human impact,” Prof Harries stated.
With bird flu currently perceived as the most likely source of a pandemic, alarming developments have been reported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. At least 30,000 seabirds have succumbed to a more virulent strain of the H5N1 virus around the UK this summer.
Limited spread in mammals and four positive tests among poultry farm workers in the UK – albeit with mild effects – underscore the severity of the situation. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has already begun monitoring those in close contact with birds and is actively participating in the global effort to create a vaccine within an unprecedented 100 days of identifying a new pathogen with pandemic potential.
“Historically, that would be unheard of. It would normally take five or 10 years. For COVID it was around 360 days,” said Prof Harries according to Sky News. “So this is a really high ambition. But for some viruses, it is definitely possible,” she added.
We find ourselves in a perplexing situation: While vaccines are undoubtedly vital in warding off diseases, the development of one for a theoretical disease like Disease X raises questions. Since vaccines usually involve a weakened form of the disease agent or its DNA/RNA code, how can one be created without knowing the specific pathogen? Is the goal of “vaccine development” for Disease X really about constructing a physical vaccine, or is it more about preparing humanity for a potential global pandemic, similar to COVID-19? The true intent remains uncertain.
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Featured image credit Kerem Gülen/Midjourney