Rumors of a Scary-Sounding 'Disease X' Are Swirling the Web. Here's What We Learned

Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images
Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

Just four years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new pandemic allegedly is on the horizon — or so claim headlines in various news outlets. This new pathogen is apparently so serious that a panel at the 2024 World Economic Forum (WHO, commonly called Davos) was expected to be devoted to it at the group's annual conference in mid-January 2024.

But there's one thing many people, conspiracy theorists and news outlets alike, neglected to mention in reports about this pandemic of "Disease X": It's not real ... yet.

"Disease X" and "Pathogen X" are placeholder names for a fully fictitious disease and the organism that causes it, in the same way that the letter 'X' in mathematics stands for an unknown variable. According to the University of Nebraska's Global Center for Health Security, the term "Disease X" was coined by the World Health Organization in 2017 as a way to promote base-level research into cures for unknown but highly dangerous pathogens. Now, in a post-COVID world, many global leaders are paying closer attention to public health crises like pandemics, and using the placeholder name "Disease X" gives them an easy way to discuss it.

Naming the theoretical ailment "Disease X" was also a bit of a public relations master move: the name is catchy, simple and could attract public attention to causes in global health. Based on the current outcry from people like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, making claims that Disease X was real (but also a global conspiracy) might have worked a bit too well:

In a similar vein, claims about Disease X being human-made and killing 100% of lab mice were blatantly false: again, Disease X does not exist. Regardless, research created by the initiative is dedicated to finding shortcuts to cures rather than killing mice.

WHO is genuinely concerned about future pandemics, especially ones caused by something we haven't expected. For instance, if a pandemic of Ebola was to occur in the next year, humanity would be relatively equipped to handle it: We have vaccines against Ebola and know how to control its spread. But with a pandemic caused by an as-yet-known potential Disease X, having a basic research framework already in place might allow healthcare workers to save more lives and scientists to develop a cure faster.

That ties into another common claim spread online: that there is already a vaccine for Disease X, thus confirming the conspiracist's belief that the whole effort is meant to subdue the general population. This is not true. Since Disease X does not exist, there is no vaccine. But again, that's the point of the initiative: WHO wants to be prepared for whatever Disease X ends up being by conducting a lot of preliminary research in all sorts of diseases, making it more likely humanity has studied something similar in the past. That would give the scientists and healthcare workers on the front lines of the next pandemic a larger toolbox with which to fight the disease.

So when the WHO claims that Disease X could be 20 times more deadly than COVID, that statement needs to be understood as a prediction of the worst-case scenario. The scientists developing the framework for a future cure of Disease X should understand how severe the disease could be. The statistics might be scary, but the goal is to promote the research now so that when Disease X eventually comes, it's not going to be the end of the world.


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