Photo: Sam Boerlijst

Preparing for Disease X

On virus evolution and the approach against pandemic viruses

On Friday November 10, prof. Marion Koopmans, Head of the Department of Viroscience of Erasmus MC and Scientific Director of the PDPC, gave a lecture about Disease X during the 37st NIBI-conference in The Netherlands.

November 2019, something happened at a market in China that in the years that followed captivated society worldwide spellbound. A virus, originating from bats made its way to humans, transmitting rapidly in the large crowd of people in the million-city of Wuhan. With that, the second pandemic of this millennium was a fact. The penultimate pandemic was the flu pandemic in 2009. Meanwhile, another global outbreak is underway, due to the so-called MPox virus, a virus found in rodents prevalent in parts of Africa but spread from that region worldwide. And the animal world has its own pandemic, with an avian flu virus that since 2020 has caused worldwide morbidity and mortality among a large number of bird species and carnivores.

These are some examples of a trend that virogenes have been seeing for several decades: the likelihood of new infectious disease outbreaks is increasing. In our modern society, there are numerous aspects that increase the likelihood of virus outbreaks such as, for example, deforestations, rapidly growing population, and urbanization where people and animals live close together, our travel behaviour and globalisation of food production.

Also in the Netherlands, we run risks of new virus variants, due to mega-stalls, high densities of (poultry) cattle, migratory birds and a high population density. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has compiled a list of viruses that should be closely monitored, including influenza, coronaviruses, Ebola and Zika. But to reflect the unpredictability of outbreaks, the list also includes virus ‘X’, a new virus with inherent properties that could lead to a pandemic.

Thinking about preparing for ‘disease X’ means that researchers have to think more broadly: what characteristics of viruses make the likelihood of pandemic spread more likely? How do you recognize that? Can you predict that? Can you prevent it?

The outbreaks of the past two decades have indeed underscored the importance of critical reflection on our approach to global and national health crises. The ongoing efforts in pandemic preparedness both at global and national levels are crucial, but it’s equally important to engage in a thoughtful examination of our role in influencing these developments.

The concept of ‘One Health’ aptly recognizes the interconnectedness of the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems. This interconnectedness implies that our solutions must be comprehensive, addressing the complex interactions between these elements.

Read more about the programme of the 37st NIBI-conference.

Photo: Sam Boerlijst