For Mark Woolhouse, professor of epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, another so-called “Disease X” capable of causing a global pandemic could be just around the corner.
EDINBURGH Scotland (The Independent/Infobae) – Another so-called “Disease X” capable of causing a global pandemic could be just around the corner, and it’s a question of when, not if, a leading epidemiologist warned. Scientists have discovered new viruses capable of infecting humans at a steady pace for the past 50 years, finding one or two new viruses every 12 to 24 months, said renowned British epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse.
The professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh said, “The precise mechanism by which a virus emerges is always extremely unpredictable. You can never predict specific events, so you have to do it on some sort of statistical basis of probability.”
“Disease X” is the World Health Organization (WHO) term for a previously unknown pathogen that emerges and spreads around the world, as has happened with COVID-19, and was added to the UN agency’s priority list for the first time in 2018.
Professor Woolhouse says that WHO approached him and some colleagues in 2017 and asked them to add Disease X to its priority diseases list. The experts met the following year and, suspecting that the “most likely scenario” was that an as-yet-unknown disease would cause the next emerging pandemic, decided that one possibility was a new coronavirus related to SARS or MERS.
“I mean, one couldn’t be more accurate than that,” he stressed in dialogue with The Independent. “This new virus is so closely related to SARS, so they identified it as one of the threats.” Despite this foresight, COVID-19 has claimed more than 2 million lives in the ten months since WHO declared it a pandemic, with more than 100 cases identified worldwide.
The specialist acknowledges not being sure that much thought is being given to the next threat, while the world is concentrating entirely on dealing with the one it has. “We were all prepared to deal with the influenza pandemic, and we got something else. And I think for me the big lesson. I’ve been trying to push this for many years, is not to be too prescriptive about what you think is coming.”
In an interview with Infobae, U.S. Dr. Jonathan Quick, a professor at Harvard and Duke universities and a global health specialist, said: “While the emergence of a new pandemic virus-like COVID-19 was predictable and inevitable, I think a pandemic of this magnitude was preventable. It did not have to be.”
“There are two general lessons that emerge from a careful analysis of large-scale epidemics and pandemics over the last century,” Quick continued. First, there will always be outbreaks of new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and periodic resurgences of familiar diseases such as Ebola. Second, to no small extent, the difference between a small-scale disease outbreak and devastating regional epidemics like Ebola and catastrophic pandemics like COVID-19 is human action, or, more often, inaction.”
One might ask: why don’t we devise a plan to identify these pathogens early and mobilize scientists, the health community, policymakers, and the public to combat these scourges? The answer is that we already have. We know what steps to take to limit a pandemic. The WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services have developed and disseminated detailed plans.
Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., professor of Emergency Medicine, director of the Arizona Bioethics Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and lead author of the research published by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information, argues, “The problem is that we’ve done all this before and we don’t seem to have learned the lessons taught by our predecessors.”
“After the SARS pandemic, for example, WHO detailed the steps needed to control a pandemic. These vital steps were ignored during the initial period of the COVID-19 pandemic. The chronically underfunded WHO has to endure a bloated, slow and uncoordinated bureaucracy that has to answer 194 countries. It has been condemned for overreacting (2009 H1N1 pandemic) and underreacting (2014 Ebola epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic), and failing to act. CDC is chronically underfunded and politically powerless. Academics are voices in the wilderness whose advice is usually sought too late in the process to have much effect,” asserts the expert.
He adds, “As the threat of COVID-19 diminishes, politicians will make big promises to implement plans to stop, or at least prepare for, the next pandemic. The recovering economy will be too weak at first to support the effort, although more funds will be promised in the future. Ultimately, they will make politically expedient changes and will not authorize the changes needed to produce more rapid and flexible responses. Memories of the distress and social disruption during COVID-19 will fade. Our bulwarks against pandemic diseases will remain underfunded and inadequate to the task. Still, it is clear that there are multiple X-diseases in our future; we need to be prepared.”
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