Beating Disease X
Posted on January 17 2023
Disease X. It’s an ominous concept. A mysterious and dangerous pathogen that we don’t know, but we do know is out there - waiting to make a deadly jump from an animal or bird into an unsuspecting person, and take off on a viral killing spree.
To have written a book about disease X and to have brought it into the world as we are all seeking to recover from exactly such a viral killing spree may seem counter intuitive. But the reality is, that just because we’ve just spent the last three years trying to deal with the death and destruction that can be wrought by a disease X, that doesn’t mean we’re done with them.
The COVID pandemic is often described as a ‘once in a century’, or ‘once in a lifetime’ event. But that is far, far from the truth. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the latest in an increasingly regular series of previously unknown viral pathogens to have emerged in recent years. In fact it’s the 7th infectious disease to have caused an epidemic or pandemic in this 21st Century alone – and we’re not even a quarter of the way through it yet.
Another disease X is out there – perhaps many more of them. It’s only a question of time before one or more begin to make their way across the animal-to-human frontier.
But DISEASE X – the book – is not just scare story. In writing it, and doing so now, I wanted to raise the alarm, yes, and to counsel people against giving in to the understandable desire to put pandemics to the back of their minds. But I also wanted to tell people that it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve been learning and writing about global health for almost 15 years now, and I spent many more years before that writing about international politics, economics, and society. Over those years, I’ve talked to - or rather listened to - virus hunters and virus finders; vaccine developers and vaccine deniers; to aid workers, nurses, doctors; to behavioural scientists, virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists and many more. Through those conversations, I’ve become fascinated by viruses and by the enormous impact that such tiny – absolutely minuscule – scraps of genetic material can have on humanity, on our way of life.
Think of HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS; the many types of flu – bird, swine and human; or the coronaviruses that caused SARS, MERS and now Covid-19; the Ebola and Marburg viruses and the various pox viruses. As well as being shape shifters that can mutate to evade immune defences and infect human cells, these viruses can affect human behaviour and change societies. Rarely in a good way. As I write in DISEASE X, “viruses can be both biologically and morally pernicious”. Even the ones that are not enormously deadly can still destroy relationships and communities, turn people against each other and bring out some of the worst human traits.
Given that we know there are so many other viral disease Xs out there, that we know the extreme danger they pose, and that we now know – in part thanks to the dramatic scientific advances made during the Covid crisis – how we can contain and halt epidemics before they spiral out of control, there is truly no excuse to be unprepared again.
Indeed, among the very, very few positives to emerge from the world’s devastating encounter with the disease X of the 2020s, Covid-19, is that it has helped us identify the traits and skill sets we need to hone to be able to make this pandemic not the latest, but the last.
In DISEASE X’s drumbeat of chapters, I write that we should PREPARE to be Scared, PREPARE to Move Fast, PREPARE to Share, PREPARE to Fail, and so on as a roadmap towards a pandemic-free world, a recipe for success in building a future in which the next viral pathogen to pose a pandemic threat is controlled and neutralised before it can unleash its worst. This is the 100 Days Mission that will see future disease Xs with pandemic potential tackled and contained before they can wreck the billions of lives and livelihoods that Covid-19 has.
Because I wrote it as a former journalist now science writer, DISEASE X is not an expert view of a virologist or vaccine developer, and it doesn’t pretend to answer all the millions of questions we might have about Covid-19, about contagious outbreaks, or about how to protect our health. Instead, it aims to distil the insights of some the world’s leading global health experts over decades of studying epidemics and pandemics of the past and present, to analyse some of what governments, societies and their people got right and wrong, and to weave in my own insights from watching what infectious diseases can do to people and communities.
The book’s unique perspective, from both outside and inside some of the biggest pandemic prevention minds, will, I hope, give it a useful role in deepening understanding of why, as we emerge from Covid-19, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Ultimately, DISEASE X is a story of hope. Its final chapter, set in 2027, describes a world which has listened and learned from the infectious disease devastation of 2020 to 2023. And when a previously unknown virus with deadly pandemic potential emerges in that new world, it is scary, yes, but it is also, ultimately, containable. Within a little more than three months, an alarmed but fast-moving, risk-taking, scientifically- and financially-prepared world of nations is able to come together to thwart a potential pandemic. It’s a fictional happy ending, but one we can make a reality - if we do something about it now.