The World Health Organisation released a report in 2017 in which various pathogens that posed a risk and needed addressing were listed. Featuring among the threats were Nipah disease, which causes a range of illnesses from asymptomatic infection to acute respiratory illness and fatal encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). The list was comprised of viruses which had no known treatments or vaccines, and all had the potential to trigger pandemics that could kill thousands – just as Ebola and swine flu did in previous years.
But later on, a new illness was added: Disease X.
The mysterious name referred to “a serious international epidemic caused by a pathogen currently unknown”.
It added that humanity should now be working to seek out and tackle unknown diseases, but assumed they would remain a remote threat for some time.
The recent outbreak of coronavirus – known as Covid-19 – bears similarities to the description of Disease X and suggests that researchers underestimated the danger of the enigmatic virus they had highlighted three years earlier.
As the NHS highlights, coronavirus’ main symptoms include a cough, a high temperature and shortness of breath.
While scientists have been able to flag various illnesses as potential threats, some have argued that the research has been negligent in some areas, allowing the coronavirus breakout to occur under the radar.
Dr Josie Golding, epidemics lead at the Wellcome Trust said: “World health authorities have spent a lot of time and money making plans for dealing with the next major outbreak, which was assumed would be an influenza pandemic. A lot of investment has gone into making influenza vaccines, for example.
“But have we been thinking about diseases other than influenza that might become pandemics? I don’t think we have. There has been a real gap in our thinking.
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“We just didn’t envisage a Disease X emerging on the scale we had seen with an influenza pandemic. We will do that in future.”
The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in mainland China reached 1,770 as of the end of Sunday, up by 105 from the previous day.
At least 100 of the new deaths were from the province of Hubei, the epicentre of the epidemic, the Commission said on Monday morning.
Across the country, there were 2,048 new confirmed infections, about 1,933 from Hubei alone, pushing the new total to 70,548.
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But there are fears that Africa, a continent yet to be heavily impacted by the chaos, could be extremely vulnerable should the illness arrive on its shores.
Given that healthcare resources in many of the countries are scarce, and infrastructure pales in comparison to more developed countries, the death toll could rise significantly if the continent becomes affected.
The epicentre of the pandemic is in Wuhan, China, and given that the country has grown its political and economic links to a number of African countries, people in places such as Nigeria and South Africa are especially at risk.
Other nations among the 13 labelled as more vulnerable than most include Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, leading the World Health Organisation to mark these areas as high priority.
Trade moving between China and Africa accumulated more than £150billion in 2018, figures from the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies shows.
The closer political and economic ties between Beijing and the continent mean that Africa could be vulnerable in the future.