THE coronavirus has caused devastation across the world, costing the lives of more than two million within a year.
And another “Disease X” pandemic threatening human life is only “around the corner”, scientists warn.
A coronavirus-style pandemic is “around the corner”, scientists predict. Pictured: A man dressed in a hazmat suit in Bangkok, Thailand, 14 January 2021Credit: EPA
It is not a matter of “if”, but “when” another Covid-style pandemic rocks the world.
But it is difficult to tell when such a disease may emerge, and how they come about is “unpredictable”.
Asked if the next Disease X could potentially be around the corner, Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said “absolutely”.
Speaking independently to PA news agency, he said: “You could use the phrase ‘it is when, not if’.
“We can’t put a handle on when, of course. The precise mechanism by which a virus comes out is always extremely unpredictable.
“You can never predict precise events, so you have to do it on sort of statistical grounds probability.”
“Disease X” is the name given to the unknown viruses that pose a great danger.
Prof Woolhouse said every year or two scientists are discovering one or two viruses that are transmissible to humans – a rate that has been constant for more than 50 years.
He said a flu pandemic is at the top of the list for outbreaks to be concerned about, but that there is a whole range of other undiscovered viruses to be aware of.
Prof Woolhouse said he and colleagues warned the World Health Organization to add Disease X to its list of priority diseases in 2017.
It is currently the tenth highest priority disease, with Covid-19 number one.
Total confirmed Covid cases in the world and on each continent
“We thought that the next emerging pandemic might be a virus that we don’t even know about yet – quite frankly we thought it was the most likely scenario,” Prof Woolhouse said.
In a meeting in 2018 experts including Prof Woolhouse considered what the disease might be.
One possibility they came up with was a new coronavirus similar to Sars and Mers, which have previously caused outbreaks.
Prof Woolhouse said: “I mean, it really couldn’t be more accurate than that.
“This new virus is so closely related to Sars, so they absolutely pinpointed it as one of the threats.”
The new coronavirus, which causes Covid-19 disease, is a “zoonotic disease” – one which jumps from an animal to humans.
The origins of Covid have not been clearly identified, but the first cases ever reported were traced back to a fish and meat market in Wuhan, China.
The United Nations Environment Department (UNEP) – a division of the UN – say the coronavirus most likely originated in bats.
It said the new coronavirus came as no surprise, blaming human behaviour increasingly common zoonotic diseases like Ebola and Mers.
A UNEP report in June 2020 said: ‘The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead.”
Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, a doctor who helped discover Ebola, also fears the world faces an unknown number of new and potentially fatal viruses emerging from Africa’s tropical rainforests.
Asked whether he believes future pandemics could be more apocalyptic than Covid-19, he chillingly told CNN: “Yes, yes, I think so.”
Prof Woolhouse said there “needs to be more thought” about future pandemics – but officials are currently focused on sorting the coronavirus one.
He added that it was not that the UK did not have any plans, and actually had “pretty mature and sophisticated plans” to react to the next pandemic influenza.
“Unfortunately, I like to put it, we did a lot of work, we did our revision, we went into the exam room, and they gave us the wrong paper.
“We were all prepared to meet the pandemic flu, and we got something else.”
The comments come as this week marks a year since the first coronavirus cases were reported in the UK.
Two people in York were confirmed to have the coronavirus on January 31 after returning from Hubei, China.
The first known death was on March 5.
However, a man called Peter Attwood, 84, from Chatham in Kent, died of the virus on January 30 – though his death was not formally confirmed as having involved Covid-19 until the end of August.
It added weight to the theory that Covid had been circulating in the UK for weeks before being identified – and months before the first lockdown.