What is Disease X?
Disease X. A title dripping in mystery, the name itself an enigma. After all, It sounds more grounded in science fiction than reality, but what it represents for the future of the medical world is of vital importance. So what is Disease X? The World Health Organization describes Disease X “as the representation of knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease” 1. In short, it represents the potential threat of a future epidemic. It does not specifically refer to any current diseases but is instead listed alongside COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola as the next predicted crisis. It’s impossible to predict from what or where the next inevitable deadly disease will surface, but the key is to be proactive, not reactive. With these revelations, comes an urgency for preparation.

How does Disease X further medicine?

Comprehensive research into Disease X is paramount for medical professionals. The insight gained from studying potential epidemics directly reflects our ability to prevent and treat future outbreaks. The WHO maintains the aforementioned list of pathogens considered to be the most contagious and deadly.  When the medical community analyzes these pathogens, we glean invaluable data on both the origin and transmission of such infectious agents and thus are more prepared to respond accordingly. The more knowledge we can gather to predict Disease X, the more effective we can treat and halt an epidemic.

Prediction and hypothesis

When equipped with the ability to proactively predict the origin of a dangerous strain, medical experts can more accurately conduct the next appropriate steps. With improved data, facilities have the capacity to dispense vaccines amongst the population in record time, greatly reducing the impact of this hypothetical pathogen. 

For perspective, it took 26 months from initial infection to clinical deployment for the deadly West African Ebola outbreak. That means it took nearly two years to halt the virus’ rampage, but not without killing thousands first. In comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic, this same process took less than 300 days2, vastly improving the turnaround time. This monumental improvement is why research is necessary. 

The data and predictions gathered by the study of Disease X is invaluable, solidifying a foundation for proactive modern medicine. The research forms a strong hypothesis that has yielded results, evident in the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. Though disease and outbreak are inevitable, scientific research is vital to decrease the time between outbreak and treatment. As intimidating as the prospect of Disease X is, what it ultimately represents is unflinching optimism and an itch for improvement. As humans, we must be willing to prepare against uncertain odds. 


  1. Prioritizing diseases for research and development in emergency contexts


  1. Vaccine development for emerging infectious diseases | Nature Medicine

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