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Preparing for the next pandemic: What is ‘Disease X?’

Yasmeen Matthews
Kent State University’s Lowry Hall is home to the College of Public Health.

World leaders and health organizations have focused on “Disease X” as the next international pandemic, and it could reportedly be 20 times worse than COVID-19.  

Kent State University experts, however, are weighing in on Disease X and its capabilities. 

“There’s no real way to say, ‘Oh yeah, the next one’s gonna be 20 times worse or a thousand times worse,’” said Christopher Woolverton, a professor of epidemiology. “They have no basis in saying that through scientific data.” 

Courtesy of Chris Woolverton

Disease X, Woolverton said, is hypothetical and doesn’t exist. Instead, it serves as a pseudonym for the next unknown pathogen that results in a pandemic. 

The purpose of Disease X isn’t so much about what disease will cause the next pandemic, but rather to prepare for and contain the next pandemic. Woolverton said this preparation begins with surveillance of threatening microbes and a rapid scale up of vaccine and therapeutic development. 

“We clearly should be monitoring what the microbes that are being transmitted from animal to animal that have the potential to come into a human are doing,” Woolverton said. “There were just too many other variables by the time we got the vaccine to try and roll it out more efficiently than what it was.” 

Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, said improving global communication is key to fighting the next pandemic.

“The things coming out of the WHO (World Health Organization) were not exactly aligned with, for example, what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) was saying,” Smith said. “Trying to make sure that everyone is, you know, telling the same story, using the same data and updating quickly.” 

Smith also said increasing research on virus families and better understanding them for the purpose of creating vaccines will be key to preventing another pandemic. 

Regarding how the next pandemic could take shape, Smith revealed it could likely be another respiratory virus similar to COVID-19.

Courtesy of Tara Smith

“Those are the ones that are just easiest to transmit,” she said.

Smith also added that reemerging infections, such as antibiotic resistant bacteria, are also a concern for future pandemics. 

“All of us have grown up with antibiotics,” she said. “You just go to the doctor and get prescribed those, but what happens when those are gone?” 

While no one can predict when the next pandemic will happen, Smith said the possibility of another one is certain.

“It could be this year, it could be 10 years from now, it could be 20 years,” Smith said.

John Engoglia is a reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Yasmeen Matthews, Assistant Photo Editor
Yasmeen is a sophomore Photography Major and KentWired's Assistant Photo Editor. She enjoys taking photos of the various sports teams as well as student life on Kent's campus. Contact her @[email protected].

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