Disease X is coming, is pharma ready?

Content Writer, Maria O’Hanlon, explores how pharma is preparing for the next pandemic.

Driving to do my weekly food shop, I had a surreal experience listening to the radio presenter discussing “Disease X.” It’s easy to imagine a scenario straight out of a science fiction novel upon hearing that scientists have begun to develop vaccines against this currently unknown disease.

In a world marked by unexpected outbreaks of infectious diseases, the call for preparedness against future pandemics makes sense. The echoes of past pandemics remind us of the importance of being ready for anything. The need for action, rather than reactive panic, seems to be echoing through the global healthcare community.

Learning from the past

Historically, unexpected outbreaks of infectious diseases have caught the medical community off guard. The Spanish flu, which killed more than 50 million people between 1918 and 1920, was a disaster for developing healthcare systems at the time. Even 100 years on, public health experts and commercial risk modelers knew that something like COVID-19 was quite likely, but it still emerged as the largest global crisis since World War II.

Criticisms of the World Health Organization’s response to past pandemics such as slow responses to contact tracing, population-wide distancing, and restrictions on movement and travel, highlight the need for robust planning to avoid complacency and contain the spread of transmissible diseases.

In light of this, scientists have drawn up a list of potential animal viruses that could be capable of infecting humans and could be responsible for the next pandemic. As they are currently unsure about which animal may lead to the next pandemic, they refer to this hypothetical, mysterious entity as Disease X.

Defining Disease X

The concept of Disease X was introduced to highlight the need to research and prepare for potential infectious diseases that may arise in the future. Currently, scientists are monitoring several high-risk pathogens, including monkeypox, bird flu and hantavirus.

An early success is the world’s first vaccine against Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, a disease that is spread by ticks in warmer climates, with a fatality rate of 30%.

Particularly poignant for me was a lesson from my undergraduate Public Health and Microbiology lectures. I vividly remember learning that the emergence and spread of infectious diseases with pandemic potential occurred regularly throughout history. However, the probability of a pandemic of similar magnitude to the deadliest pandemic of modern history, the Spanish Flu, ranged from 0.3% to 1.9% per year. In other words, a pandemic of equal scale would occur within the next 400 years.

Climate change and population shifts are now making another pandemic far more likely. The probability of a pandemic with a similar impact to COVID-19 occurring is even higher than that of the Spanish flu, sitting at over 2%, with that probability growing. Scientists even predict that the probability of a novel disease outbreak is likely to grow three-fold in the next decade.

In part, this increase is likely due to increased urbanization, where we may see a virus jumping onto humans living close to animals, which has previously been witnessed with bird flu. Climate changes are a huge contributor, as we observe insects like ticks and mosquitoes traveling to areas outside of their usual habitat, which are now becoming increasingly warm.

The roadmap to pandemic preparedness

In the face of the potential crisis posed by Disease X, strategic steps can be taken to mitigate the impact of this mysterious pathogen. The pharma community plays a pivotal role in preparing for Disease X.

  • Accelerating research and development (R&D)
    Pharma companies have the expertise and resources needed to accelerate R&D efforts aimed at identifying and characterizing potential pathogens that could cause Disease X. By prioritizing the discovery of novel treatments, innovative vaccines and diagnostics, the pharma industry can enhance the global response to promptly deal with emerging disease threats.
  • Collaborative vaccine development
    Collaborative efforts between pharma companies can accelerate vaccine development, ensuring that effective immunization strategies are in place before a pandemic begins. This includes establishing collaborative research partnerships and networks to share data, insights and resources to rapidly identify potential pathogens and understand their transmission dynamics.
  • Effective scale-up of vaccine manufacturing
    The pharma industry has the infrastructure required for the large-scale production of vaccines. By investing in flexible manufacturing processes, companies can swiftly respond to Disease X outbreaks, enabling the global production and distribution of essential vaccines in the face of a pandemic.
  • Ensuring supply chain resilience
    Ensuring a resilient pharma supply chain is essential. Pharma companies can collaborate with governments and stakeholders to ensure a robust, resilient supply chain has been established, to prevent shortages during Disease X outbreaks.

A comprehensive approach that embodies collaboration across the industry will help to highlight at-risk areas within companies, identify key pathogens that could be behind Disease X and target risk factors.

Paving the way to safeguarding global health

The term “Disease X” symbolizes the uncertainty surrounding the identity and origin of the potential pathogen that could cause the next pandemic. It serves as a reminder that new diseases can emerge unexpectedly, and the global health and pharma industries need to be ready to respond to them.

By focusing on research, development, collaboration and implementing proactive strategies to minimize the impact of future pandemics on pharma output, global health security can be achieved.

The future demands preparation — why not act now?

Interested to learn more? Read our recent blogs about trends changing biopharma and overcoming challenges in orphan drug development.

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