Expert puts money on cause of next pandemic as Disease X vaccine underway

Disease X concept explained by WHO doctor in 2018

Scientists in the UK are currently developing vaccines as insurance against a new pandemic caused by an unknown “Disease X”.

The work is being carried out at the government’s high-security Porton Down laboratory complex in Wiltshire.

The team of more than 200 scientists has drawn up a threat list of animal viruses that are capable of infecting humans and could potentially spread rapidly around the world in the future.

However, it’s unclear which virus could break through and spur on the next pandemic, which is why it’s referred to only as “Disease X”.

Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam, Molecular Virologist and Leader from Monash University Malaysia, told that the question which “infectious agent” or virus will cause the next pandemic is currently at the forefront of many minds in the scientific community.

READ MORE Disease X is the ‘unknown virus’ that has experts fearing the worst

The professor said: “Truthfully, it is almost impossible to predict when the next pandemic will occur as they are random events depending on various environmental factors. 

“They can begin anywhere in the world where animals and humans are in close proximity as pandemics most often originate when a pathogen transfers from an animal in which it lives to a human never before infected with that pathogen.”

This was the case with some of the biggest pandemics the world has seen, ranging from Spanish flu to COVID-19.

The professor explained that once animal pathogens jump to humans, there are three possible outcomes: it causes an illness in a single person, it causes a wider outbreak or the pathogen causes an entire pandemic.

Therefore, Dr Balasubramaniam believes the next pandemic will be triggered by a close interaction between animals and humans.

He said: “Historically, this has been the case for some of the major spillovers of zoonotic viruses from animals to humans that has led to a fully blown outbreak and pandemic worldwide.

“Right from the Covid – Wuhan wet market link; 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic that is thought to have originated in Mexico where the outbreak was first contracted by pig farmers, to the 1998-1999 Nipah virus outbreak among pig farmers in Malaysia.”

The expert puts his “money” on the Influenza virus, in particular, the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 subtype.

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He explained that this could cause the “next big outbreak” which may lead to a pandemic.

Dr Balasubramaniam said: “The recent mass mortality events in mammals from H5 subtype virus highlight opportunities for the virus to adapt from avian to mammalian hosts and to acquire properties for efficient mammal-to-mammal transmission. 

“There were reported cases in animals such as seals, minks and sealions. 

“In line with spillovers to mammals, there have been reports of human cases in the UK, USA, Spain, and Ecuador in the past year through contact with infected poultry.”

Based on his predictions, the professor thinks the UK’s decision to develop vaccines against “Disease X” is a “move in an important direction”.

While the threat from Influenza and zoonotic pathogens is real, scientific efforts like these as well as addressing climate change will be able to help “contain future pandemics”.

However, Dr Balasubramaniam added that the efforts must begin now.

“The timing is ticking before we encounter a new fully blown pandemic,” he said.

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