News

How Disease X, the-epidemic-in-waiting, erupted in China

February 28, 2020

Marion Koopmans, Erasmus University Medical Centre: This is a new disease, it’s threatening to the world, it’s socially disrupting, and we need to come up with ways of detecting it, controlling it, treating it, preventing it on the fly – to me, that is a Disease X

They called it “Disease X”. The epidemic-in-waiting. The World Health Organisation added it to a list of eight of humanity’s worst-known infectious diseases back in 2018. Didn’t have a name because it hadn’t happened. One aim of the list is to show the 194 countries that fund the United Nations body the threat from global public health emergencies, namely epidemics.

Ebola is there, bullet point No 2 – a virus thought to have jumped from African fruit bats to animals that humans butcher to eat. It kills about 50 per cent of the people it infects, mostly through massive loss of body fluids. The Ebola virus uses those same fluids – spit, blood, vomit – to infect humans that come into contact with them. A deadly swimmer.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome is bullet point four. Sars can cause pneumonia and took the lives of more than 800 people, most of them in mainland China and Hong Kong, before largely vanishing by 2003, less than a year after it appeared.

Again, bats are thought to be the host for the virus, which subsequently got into animals that humans eat, in this case probably civet cats sold in China’s markets as meat. Sars doesn’t need to swim to infect, it can float between human hosts in droplets from coughs or sneezes, or get picked up by touching an infected surface.

Disease X is at the bottom of the list, bullet point eight. The description: “[it] represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”

This is a new disease, it’s threatening to the world, it’s socially disrupting, and we need to come up with ways of detecting it, controlling it, treating it, preventing it on the fly – to me, that is a Disease X

Marion Koopmans, Erasmus University Medical Centre

Want to read the whole article in the South China Morning Post/? look here.