WHO adds 'Disease X' to its list of priority pathogens

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With the inclusion of Disease X on its latest list of high-priority pathogens, the WHO seeks to expand preparation for potential public health outbreaks of diseases not currently on the agency's radar. (CDC)

The latest World Health Organization (WHO) review of priority diseases lists familiar names, including Zika, Ebola and SARS. It also mentions one no one knows about yet—Disease X.

“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease,” the agency explains in an announcement listing the 2018 priority diseases. Given that, the WHO’s blueprint for preparedness encompasses generic, currently unknown or unexpected pathogens that could wind up posing a major health risk.

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Experts said viruses aren't the only pathogens likely to cause a major public risk. They also noted that antibiotic-resistant superbugs could make a future list of priority diseases, adding urgency to current efforts underway to improve antibiotic stewardship, among other international efforts to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance.

Researchers also noted a need for better diagnostics in order to gauge the potential for a given pathogen to generate a public health emergency.

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The prospect of something similar to Disease X has drawn the attention of other government agencies, most recently the Department of Homeland Security, which offered a $300,000 prize to data analysts capable of generating warnings that would help major cities respond more quickly and effectively to infectious outbreaks or biological attacks.

The discussions about potential pathogens took place as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighs the possibility of scaling back its collaborations with foreign countries due to funding concerns, according to recent reports. In its most recent budget request, the CDC also sought funding to replace its current facility for handling deadly pathogens, citing the potential for safety issues caused by aging equipment.