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Disease X: The Next Pandemic

Miles from the nearest city, deep in the dark recesses of a cave in Guangdong Province, it waits. Perhaps it silently stalks from high in the canopies of trees nestled along the Kinabatangan River. Or it lies dormant in one of the thousands of species native to the Amazon. Disease X.

This is not science fiction, it’s real.

Disease X is the silly-sounding name given to the very serious threat that unknown viruses pose to human health. Alongside hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa; encephalitic viruses like MERS, SARS, and Nipah; and vector-borne diseases like Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Rift Valley fever, and Zika virus, Disease X is one of the pathogens listed by the World Health Organization as a top priority in its R&D Blueprint list.

Each year the WHO updates the list with guidance from experts in all fields of scientific study of which pathogens pose the most threat of causing the next global pandemic. While we’ve seen the impact most of these can have–there have been major pandemics of SARS, Ebola, and Zika in the past 15 years alone–we have no idea what Disease X can do, because we don’t know what Disease X is.

Biodiverse regions experiencing rapid deforestation like Southeast Asia are prime hotspots for emerging disease

There are 1.67 million unknown viruses on this planet. Using our best estimates, anywhere between 631,000 and 827,000 of those have the ability to infect people. Scientists currently know of only 263 viruses that can infect people, which means that we know almost nothing about 99.96 percent of potential pandemic threats.

The word "almost" is key.

We know which species are most likely to be carrying Disease X. We know the viral families to which Disease X is most likely to belong and, therefore, which known viruses are likely to be similar. Thanks to our hotspots map of global pandemic risk, we know the parts of the world where Disease X is most likely to make the jump to people.

EcoHealth Alliance researchers test samples from wildlife in China

EcoHealth Alliance scientists are sampling humans and wildlife around the globe to track and discover new viruses

And this is where our research begins.

EcoHealth Alliance is committed to the Global Virome Project, a visionary undertaking which seeks to find and study the vast majority of the world’s 1.67 million unknown viruses. The hope is that we can learn everything to know about Disease X before it strikes. According to a paper published in Science by many of the Global Virome Project’s architects–including EcoHealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak–in just 10 years we could discover 71 percent of those undiscovered viruses. The estimated cost for this is just $1.2 billion dollars. When compared to the $30-$50 billion price tag of the 2002-2003 SARS pandemic (itself an undiscovered virus at the time of its outbreak), it seems almost like a no brainer.

It’s our mission to put a name to Disease X, to help the world prepare, and to prevent it from emerging in humans. Today it’s probably in a forest somewhere miles from the nearest city, but that can change quickly. It’s estimated that a respiratory virus similar to the flu could reach all major global capitals within 60 days. It’s our expertise and multidisciplinary approach that stands between you and the next pandemic.

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