The Covid pandemic is not a once in a lifetime event – Disease X could cause something much worse

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Disease X. It’s an ominous concept. A mysterious and dangerous pathogen unknown to us, but we doing knowing is right there – waiting to make a death-leap from an animal or bird into an unsuspecting person, and take off on a viral killing spree.

To have written a book about Disease X and brought it into the world as we all try to recover from just such a viral killing spree may seem counterintuitive. But the reality is that just because we’ve spent the past three years trying to deal with the death and destruction that can be caused by a disease X doesn’t mean we’re done with it.

The Covid pandemic is often described as a “once in a century” or “once in a lifetime” event. But that is far, far from the truth. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is just the latest in an increasingly regular series of previously unknown viral pathogens that have emerged in recent years. In fact, it is the seventh infectious disease to cause an epidemic or pandemic in this 21st century alone – and we’re not even a quarter through it.

There is another disease X – perhaps many more. It’s only a matter of time before one or more of them start making their way across the animal-to-human boundary.

But Disease X – the book – is not just a terrifying story. In writing it, and doing so now, I wanted to sound the alarm, yes, and advise people not to give in to the understandable desire to keep pandemics in the back of their minds. But I also wanted to tell people that it doesn’t have to be that way.

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No excuse to be unprepared again

I have been teaching and writing about global health for almost 15 years now, and before that I spent many more years writing about international politics, economics and society. Over the years, I’ve talked to – or rather listened to – virus hunters and virus finders; vaccine developers and vaccine deniers; to help workers, nurses, doctors; to behavioral scientists, virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists and many more. Through those conversations, I became fascinated with viruses and with the enormous impact that such small – absolutely tiny – leftover genetic material can have on humanity, on our way of life.

Think of HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS; the many types of flu – avian, swine and human; or the coronaviruses that caused Sars, Mers and now Covid-19; the Ebola and Marburg viruses and the various poxviruses. Not only are these viruses shape-shifters that can mutate to evade immune system defenses and infect human cells, but they can also influence human behavior and change societies. Rarely in a good way. As I write in Disease X, “Viruses can be both biologically and morally pernicious.” Even those that aren’t massively lethal can still destroy relationships and communities, turn people against each other, and bring out some of the worst human traits.

Given that we know that there are so many other viral disease Xs, that we know the extreme danger they pose, and that we now know – thanks in part to the dramatic scientific advancements made during the Covid crisis – how to contain and stop epidemics before they get out of hand, there really is no excuse to be unprepared again.

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One of the few positives that emerged from the world’s devastating encounter with the 2020s disease X of the 2020s, Covid-19, is that it helped us identify the traits and skills we need to hone to overcome this pandemic. to prevent. the latest, but the last.

In the succession of chapters of Disease X, I write that we must prepare to fear, prepare to act quickly, prepare to share, prepare to fail, and so on as a roadmap to a world without pandemics – a recipe for success in building a future where the next viral pathogen to pose a pandemic threat is controlled and neutralized before it can unleash its worst. This is the 100 Days Mission that will ensure future disease Xs with pandemic potential are addressed and contained before they devastate the billions of lives and livelihoods Covid-19 has taken.

Because I wrote it as a former journalist turned science writer, Disease X is not an expert view of a virologist or vaccine developer, and it doesn’t pretend to answer all the millions of questions we might have about Covid-19, about contagious outbreaks. , or about how we can protect our health. Instead, the aim is to distill the insights of some of the world’s leading global health experts who have studied epidemics and pandemics past and present over decades, to analyze what governments, societies and their people have right and wrong, and to see through my own insights what infectious diseases can do to people and communities.

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The book’s unique perspective, both from the outside and within some of the greatest pandemic prevention minds, will, I hope, give it a useful role in deepening the understanding of why, as we emerge from Covid-19, this is not so has to be way.

Ultimately, Disease X is a story of hope. Set in 2027, the final chapter chronicles a world that has listened to and learned from the devastation of infectious diseases from 2020 to 2023. And when a previously unknown virus with deadly pandemic potential emerges in that new world, it’s scary, yes , but it is also ultimately manageable. In just over three months, an alarmed but fast-moving, high-risk, scientifically and financially prepared world of nations can come together to thwart a potential pandemic. It’s a fictional happy ending, but one we can live up to – if we do something about it now.

  • Kate Kelland is chief scientific writer for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and author of Disease X – The 100 Days Mission to End Pandemics

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