WHO and chief scientists dive into the hunt for the next big pandemic bug

SWITZERLAND — The World Health Organization (WHO) has held a meeting of 300 top scientists from across the world to discuss 25 virus families and bacteria as well as ‘Disease X’ soon after the world recovers from the impact of the Covid pandemic.

According to the UN health body, ‘Disease X’ has been included to indicate an unknown pathogen that could cause serious international epidemic.

The WHO is launching a global scientific process to update the list of priority pathogens —agents that can cause outbreaks or pandemics to guide global investment, research and development (R&D), especially in vaccines, tests, and treatments,” officials said.

The first such list of microorganisms that can cause a public health crisis of international concern was published in 2017 and the last prioritization exercise was done the following year.

According to WHO, the current list includes Covid-19, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease, Lassa fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Nipah and henipaviral disease, Rift Valley fever, Zika, and Disease X.

The list of priority pathogens has become a reference point for research community on where to focus energies to manage the nest threat,” said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.

The revised list is expected to be published in the first quarter of 2023.

Philanthropist Bill Gates is a strong supporter of this type of virus-hunting team. In his book, “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic,” published in 2022, he describes the ideal global infectious disease monitoring system, dubbed GERM (Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization).

The plan is to maintain a network of scientists whose sole mission is to scan the world’s infectious disease databases and issue alerts if new, unexplained infections emerge anywhere on the planet.

GERM would also be in charge of dispatching SWAT teams of experts to assist countries experiencing outbreaks in containing and controlling disease spread.

According to Gates, it would cost about US$1 billion for the world to support 3,000 full-time “virus hunters” in a sustained war against invisible marauders—less than one-thousandth of what nations currently spend on defense to protect themselves against potential wars with one another.

The funding, according to Gates, should come from governments, which should commit to and invest in preparing for public-health threats in the same way they do for other threats.

Private companies also can play a significant role by providing much-needed experience and resources in the form of tests and agile manufacturing capabilities if new tests or therapies are required, to make the process more efficient.

The WHO has a similar system to track emerging public-health threats through its Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network (GOARN), which provides emergency assistance to countries confronting infectious disease outbreaks.

But GOARN’s responsibilities extend beyond such outbreaks to include crises in food safety, natural and manmade disasters, and the release of chemical toxins.

The CDC also conducts surveillance for emerging pathogens and maintains teams abroad as well as mobile groups ready to fly anywhere around the world to provide assistance if countries ask for it.

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