Following the first Corona outbreak in the winter of 2019/2020, the term Disease X first appeared in English-language media in 2020. The letter X is a placeholder for a still unknown virus whose appearance and effects cannot be described. The exact definition comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) and reads as follows:
„Disease X represents the realization that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen that is not currently known to cause human disease. Therefore, the research and development concept explicitly seeks to enable, to the extent possible, cross-cutting research and development preparation relevant to a previously unknown ‚Disease X‘.“
Disease X: Can we predict the next pandemic?
Time and again, researchers talk about researching the unknown next disease – Disease X, in fact. To do this, many labs are working with targeted mutations of existing viruses. In this way, they hope to be able to develop a suitable therapy against the mutant.
But the „inventive“ coronavirus has shown us that it is extremely difficult to make predictions for a new variant. This is mainly due to the fact that in disease prevention one works with models. It is only through the interaction of many small pieces of the puzzle that appropriate conclusions can be drawn. This work is both extremely important and time-consuming.
In some cases, researchers work for decades to protect societies from possible epidemics. Much has already been learned from previous epidemics. These and other results are incorporated into the model calculations. Since we live in a computer age and are networked worldwide, it is much easier today than 20 years ago to obtain information. As a result, model calculations and resulting forecasts are much more precise, enabling individual countries to react more quickly. Nevertheless, concrete predictions are virtually impossible.
How does the World Health Organization arrive at its predictions?
One of the tasks of the World Health Organization (WHO) is the prevention of diseases and epidemics and their control. The experience with the Sars-CoV2 virus, which causes corona disease, is prompting physicians and health organizations worldwide to focus their attention more on possible future infectious diseases or their pathogens.
Infectious diseases that are not yet real, but could occur in the future, are referred to as Disease X. However, since it is not yet known what form they will take, no preventive measures can be taken. Pathogens that are still unknown are nevertheless taken very seriously as a potential threat. There are also extensive and public data collections about the viruses that have appeared so far, which anyone can access.
In addition, thanks to the preprint system, researchers now have the opportunity to publish their work earlier. What once took weeks or months can now be made available in a matter of days, sometimes even a day. Depending on the urgency of the threat, even traditional journals publish important information much earlier than would otherwise be the case.
However, the studies published at this time have not been finally reviewed, are still in the so-called peer review process. Only when this procedure has been completed can one assume that the information is credible. If not, there is a possibility of disinformation and it is advisable to read such a study very critically.
Diease X: Does artificial intelligence allow more accurate epidemic predictions?
Time and again, medical professionals grapple with the question of whether the Corona pandemic could have been predicted. Today, researchers hope to use artificial intelligence (AI) to make better predictions. AI advocates are convinced that algorithms can be used to assess the risk of epidemics even before they break out. This, they say, can be done by AI collecting data on viruses in certain animal species and drawing conclusions about their transmissibility to humans. Internet giants Google and Facebook are also working on making predictions for the next Disease X. Other experts are very skeptical on this point and consider AI useless in terms of epidemic predictions. Currently (August 2023), pandemics are not a use case for AI-driven models.