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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.

Unsplash – CC0 License

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.

Festive season

As we approach the festive season, please accept my best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

And above all, I hope you all stay safe. Winter is when bugs spread, and our bodies are less resistant to their onslaught. In addition to seasonal flu and common cold (caused partly by non-Covid coronaviruses), we are now facing another substantial COVID-19 wave.

As a reminder: To strengthen your immune system, eat good food and stay relaxed. Take appropriate supplements, if needed (a lot of us in the North need to boost our levels of Vitamin D). Consider vaccination, particularly if vulnerable.

Ventilate the rooms, particularly if more people are in. If you suspect infection (be it flu, cold, or Covid), stay at home or wear a mask.

Simply, follow common sense.

COVID inquiry

Recently, there has been a lot of interest in – and excitement about – the UK Covid inquiry. The focus is – unsurprisingly – on the first days of the pandemic in 2020, and on the decisions leading to the first lockdown.

Many people have provided more or less balanced commentaries and views related to the lockdown. A lot of them err on the side of using too much hindsight, imputing all we know now into what was known at the time.

This is why diaries from the time are so important, as they attempted to capture the actual state of knowledge and mind at that time. The tweet/X above by @jim_reed provides a good running commentary on the current situation.

Interestingly, I wrote the following in March 2020, which, I think, captures neatly what was happening at that time:

Is my government doing enough/too much? You need to understand that a politician needs to carefully balance the pros and cons of any action they take, as the consequences might be massive. This means that they tend to either do nothing (President Trump before the 11th of March) or go into a full action (President Trump after the 11th of March). They will not want to be accused of needlessly spending money. Still, on the other hand, they do not want to see TV programmes about hundreds of people dying in hospitals. In fact, our own research shows that for people, there are two rational strategies, do nothing, or act with a full force. Economists call it a ‘bang-bang’ approach.  So, expect the governments to swing between different options as they face the biggest crisis since 2008.

AK, March 12th, 2020

So true for the following three years…