Is COVID-19 the dreaded ‘Disease X' scientists warned us about?

Back in February 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) talked about a new virus that will emerge and wreak havoc across the globe. Disease X was the term used for this new unknown pathogen that might cause a future epidemic.

Two years later, the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, has evolved from a mild to deadly virus and is spreading across the globe. This begs the question, is COVID-19 the dreaded Disease X that the WHO predicted back in 2018?

Disease X is a placeholder name adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) for any new unknown pathogen that may cause disease and potentially an epidemic in the future.
Disease X is a placeholder name adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) for any new unknown pathogen that may cause disease and potentially an epidemic in the future. Image Credit: Lightspring

What is Disease X?

Disease X is a deadly plague and an outbreak of a flu-like illness, which can result in a pandemic that can kill millions of people worldwide. In 2018, the WHO classified Disease X as more deadly than the Lassa fever and the Ebola virus disease.

Disease X also represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by an unknown pathogen to cause morbidity and mortality. During that time, the diseases being studied by the WHO include the Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF), Lassa fever, Ebola virus disease, Marburg virus disease, Nipa and henipaviral diseases, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-Cov), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Rift Valley fever (RVF), and the Zika virus.

Coronavirus infection magnitude

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is thought to have emerged in late December 2019 in a seafood market in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. Since then, the virus has spread to 30 countries across the globe.

As of writing, there are 79,152 confirmed cases of the deadly virus, and it has killed 2,470 people, most of whom in the epicenter of the outbreak in Hubei Province. The majority of the cases were in mainland China, while outside the country, South Korea reported the greatest number of infections, with 763 cases, followed by Italy with 155 cases.

The WHO has declared the coronavirus a global health emergency on Jan. 30 due to the rapid spread of the virus. Many countries have already closed their borders from countries with many confirmed cases.

South Korea has seen the rapid spread of the disease in the country, prompting officials to declare the highest alert advisory. The number of cases increased from 31 on Feb. 18 to a staggering 763 six days after. The sudden spike in infections can be traced to the city of Daegu. Officials have identified a religious group, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, as a coronavirus hotbed, where an infected woman attended masses for several occasions.

The virus has spread to 30 countries, including South Korea, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Iran, Thailand, United States, Taiwan, Australia, Malaysia, Germany, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, France, Macau, Canada, the United Kingdom, Philippines, India, Russia, Spain, Lebanon, Nepal, Cambodia, Israel, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Egypt, and Sri Lanka.

Is the coronavirus the Disease X?

The coronavirus is fast spreading, and if it is not contained, it can become catastrophic. The WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus raises concern about the increasing number of the coronavirus without a clear epidemiologic link.

He added that what they fear is if the virus spreads to a country without a sound and strong healthcare system. He fears that if the virus reaches these countries, which have weak healthcare systems, it can be devastating.

Now, scientists caution that the virus’s way of infection is still unclear. During the first weeks of its spread, the incubation period was estimated to be a couple of days to 14 days, but new cases have emerged with longer incubation periods. Further, the disease can be transmitted from human to human, with aerosol and droplets as a possible mode of transmissions.

With several things still unclear about the virus and how it spreads, scientists say that the novel coronavirus fits the disease X category.

“Whether it will be contained or not, this outbreak is rapidly becoming the first true pandemic challenge that fits the disease X category, listed to the WHO’s priority list of diseases for which we need to prepare in our current globalized society,” Marion Koopmans, head of viroscience at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, and a member of the WHO’s emergency committee wrote in the journal Cell.

“Time will tell whether the consolidated efforts of the Chinese authorities and the international public health and research community will succeed. But we also need to understand how we make this model of preparedness future-proof,” she added.

Sources:

World Health Organization (WHO). (2018). Prioritizing diseases for research and development in emergency contexts. https://www.who.int/activities/prioritizing-diseases-for-research-and-development-in-emergency-contexts

World Health Organization (WHO). (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 33. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200222-sitrep-33-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=c9585c8f_2

Zhang, Y., Koopmans, M., Yuen, K., Andersen, K., Perlman, S., Hogue, B., and Eckerle, I. (2020). The Novel Coronavirus Outbreak: What We Know and What We Don’t. Cell. https://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(20)30171-9.pdf

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.

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