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Preparing for the next pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, with cases rising world-wide. In addition, the complications following the coronavirus infection, often called “long-COVID”, are impacting an increased proportion of the population.

So, should we be worried about the “unknown” diseases that might be lurking around?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently discussed the prospect of the emergence of “Disease X,” a term for what it views as the next inevitable pandemic. The disease does not exist yet, but the experience – and modelling – suggest that a killer mutation in a virus somewhere is on its way, and it could be worse than COVID-19. 

What Could Disease X Be?

Many commentators now view COVID as a trial run for a more significant disease that will likely come in the future. The recent pandemic was mild compared to what could occur, given biological realities and historical experience. Therefore, experts are searching for possible preventative measures and solutions they can implement today. 

The “Disease X” discussion has been in the news because of WHO coverage at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says that it is better to start preparing now than wait until disaster strikes and then decide to do something about it. 

We have not seen one of those emerge for a while. MERS was the most recent, but it was not as transmissible as COVID and WHO got it under control quickly, preventing it from spreading much outside of the Middle East. SARS-1 was an earlier example, but again was put quickly under control. We might not be as lucky next time. 

Interestingly, the next virus is unlikely to be another coronavirus. Most of the world’s population now has antibodies that defend against the entire family, so influenza variants are probably more likely to cause harm. With that said, the effects of mutations in a slightly different coronavirus species are hard to predict, so researchers cannot rule it out.

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How To Stop Disease X

The recent discussion at the WEF about Disease X has many commentators wondering whether AI could offer help in the event of another pandemic. Investigators are wondering whether it could speed up vaccine development. 

AI is already helpful in multiple areas, including live chat for website owners. This alone might benefit hospitals and clinics struggling to deal with patient questions remotely over the phone. Simple chat services could help human resources go further. 

However, the biggest benefits will likely be in finding new mRNA formulas that can deactivate new viruses and innoculate populations rapidly. The software could scan billions of combinations, looking for protein arrangements offering maximum protection. The idea is to insert a short piece of genetic material that enables the body’s immune cells to create spike proteins that deactivate the pathogen and prevent it from causing as much harm. 

With that said, even the fastest AIs still would not negate the need for travel restrictions and other preventative approaches. While software might discover the right formula for vaccines in minutes, fabricating them and rolling them out to the public could take months, just as it did during COVID-19

Tedros believes that health services must be able to expand quickly during a new pandemic. Disease surges in the early stages are more likely to be deadly while the virus retains its maximum virulence. AI could help, but it won’t be a silver bullet. Nothing will – we need a coordinated effort of scientists, politicians and the public.