Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) released their 2018 Blueprint list of priority diseases –pathogens that have potential to cause a public health emergency with the absence of efficacious drugs and/or vaccines.

Image/qimono via pixabay
Image/qimono via pixabay

This list includes some of the usual suspects–Ebola virus, Marburg virus and Nipah virus.

The last pathogen on the list is called “Disease X”. WHO defines it as follows:

Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown “Disease X” as far as possible.

This is truly a concern and fortunately there are people out there with an idea of how to try to stay one step ahead–it’s called the Global Virome Project. The project, scheduled to start this year, is a way to be proactive instead of reactive against potential pandemic viral threats by detecting and characterizing virtually all of the planet’s unknown viral threats circulating in animals. The theory is much like that of the Human Genome Project, which identified and mapped all of the genes of the human genome and was declared complete in 2003.

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As stated in a recent article in Science:

Nearly all recent pandemics have a viral etiology with animal origins, and with their intrinsic capacity for interspecies transmission, viral zoonoses are prime candidates for causing the next great pandemic. However, if these viruses are our enemy, we do not yet know our enemy very well. Around 263 viruses from 25 viral families are known to infect humans, and given the rate of discovery following identification of the first human virus (yellow fever virus in 1901), it is likely many more will emerge in the future. We estimate, from analysis of recent viral discovery data, that ∼1.67 million yet-to-be-discovered viral species from key zoonotic viral families exist in mammal and bird hosts—the most important reservoirs for viral zoonoses.

By analyzing all known viral-host relationships, the history of viral zoonoses, and patterns of viral emergence, we can reasonably expect that between 631,000 and 827,000 of these unknown viruses have zoonotic potential. We have no readily available technological countermeasures to these as-yet-undiscovered viruses. Furthermore, the rate of zoonotic viral spillover into people is accelerating, mirroring the expansion of our global footprint and travel networks, leading to a nonlinear rise in pandemic risk and an exponential growth in their economic impacts.

With this knowledge, proactive measures for prevention and preparedness, like vaccines and novel therapies can be developed prior to spillover to human populations.

Like the “Disease X” described by WHO.

“As the Global Virome Project builds up a picture of every virus’s ecologic profile — which species it infects, where on the planet it’s found, which communities and their livestock are exposed to it — we can target our vaccines and drugs to the people on the front line of the next emerging disease.” -Dr. Dennis Carroll, director of USAID’s Emerging Threats Program in the Bureau of Global Health.