Having lived with the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year now, the threat posed by various potentially fatal microrganisms has become rather tangible to the common populace. We devour details about diseases and outbreaks - both rare and mundane and many are of the opinion that the worst is yet to come. Unfortunately, this is not an unfounded fear — 'Disease X' may very well become the next crisis faced by mankind.
The World Health Organisation classifies 'Disease X' among its list of 'priority diseases' for research and development in an emergency context. And recently, Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum — a well known figure when it comes to Ebola research — opined in an interview with CNN that pandemics far worse than COVID-19 could await. "We are now in a world where new pathogens will come out. And that's what constitutes a threat for humanity," he was quoted as saying.
Now 'Disease X' does not pertain to any specific pathogen. The 'X' here stands for the unknown. As the WHO Research Team's webpage notes, "Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease. The R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable early cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown Disease X."
Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum has worked for more than four decades on researching the Ebola virus disease. He was a part of the research team that investigated the first known outbreak of Ebola virus disease in 1976 and has tracked its progression ever since. There is a strange parallel to be noted here. After all, when Tamfum first reached Yambuku village in Zaire, Ebola was a hitherto unknown "mysterious disease". Till date, it features on the WHO's list of 'priority diseases'
Over the last century or so, scientists have found at least 200 new viruses that cause diseases in the human body. Many of these are zoonotic illnesses - originating in animals and then eventually being transferred to human beings. New viruses are constantly being discovered - and as the CNN report notes, in some cases, tests do not reveal the ailment as being from established causes. Thus, even as COVID-19 continues to rage, and new strains of the virus make their presence felt, scientists around the world remain braced for new outbreaks.