"Disease X" Is the Next Pandemic — Here's Why You Don't Need to Worry About It

Anna Garrison - Author

Jan. 11 2024, Published 4:33 p.m. ET

Vials and microscope in lab
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Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the general population has been (rightfully) concerned about the next pandemic on the horizon. With the mutating variants of the coronavirus still wreaking havoc on people's health in 2024, it's no surprise that scientists would want to get ahead of any future devastation.

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And for years, scientists have been concerned about something called "Disease X." But what is "Disease X"? What are the symptoms of Disease X? And what does it mean that the World Health Organization (WHO) is researching it? Keep reading for everything you need to know about the mysterious Disease X.

Microscope looking at a slide.
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What is Disease X?

In February 2017, the WHO added "Disease X" to a list of pathogens for further research. Other diseases on the list are already known to the public, such as Ebola, West Nile virus, and SARS.

The term "Disease X" is a placeholder name to represent an unknown pathogen, per the WHO, not a disease that you should panic about. "X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease," reads a statement on the WHO's website.

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Scientist in labor coat looking at slides under a microscope.
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What are the symptoms of Disease X?

As "Disease X" is technically a placeholder name, it's difficult to determine what potential symptoms could arise from "Disease X." Not to mention, virus symptoms can change depending on the variants (as seen with COVID-19), so it's hard to predict symptoms without knowing where a new virus comes from.

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That said, in August 2023, Sky News reported that scientists in the U.K. were attempting to create a vaccine effective against a list of animal-borne viruses that could mutate into "Disease X" and erupt in a new pandemic.

Professor Dame Jenny Harries, head of the U.K. Health Security Agency, told Sky News at the time, "What we're trying to do here is ensure that we prepare so that if we have a new Disease X, a new pathogen, we have done as much of that work in advance as possible."

Harries added, "Hopefully we can prevent [a pandemic]. But if we can't and we have to respond, then we have already started developing vaccines and therapeutics to crack it."

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Doctor looking at a digital pad
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Pandemics are caused in part by climate change.

In September 2023, Dr. Peter Hotez, who is Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Co-Director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told Fox 28 Houston that he is concerned about "Disease X" based on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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"I am very worried that we as a nation, we haven't made that commitment to fully protect the American people," Dr. Hotez explained.

"We have a likelihood that new pandemic threats, what people are calling the Disease X, are going to be arising on a regular basis."

When asked about the reason for so many pandemics so close together, Dr. Hotez said, "It's one of the most common questions I'm asked. It's a confluence of 21st-century forces. A big one is climate change which is altering the migration of animals that can transmit these viral pathogens."

There has also been various pieces of evidence that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated in animals, with many experts calling for a reform of humanity's use of animals.

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