WHO identifies pathogens possible cause of future pandemics

After Covid-19, prevention is better than cure. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday it had brought together more than 300 experts to draw up a new list of pathogens capable of causing epidemics and pandemics and to study the threats that could arise from unknown viruses.

The WHO’s goal is to update a list of pathogens used as a guide for research and development as well as for investments, including for the development of vaccines, screening tests and treatments. As part of this process, which started on Friday, the WHO has brought together more than 300 scientists who must study data relating to more than 25 families of viruses and bacteria.

“Disease X”

Scientists will focus in particular on “disease X”, an as yet unknown pathogen that could cause a serious global pandemic. “Targeting priority pathogens and virus families for research and development of countermeasures is essential for rapid and effective response to epidemics and pandemics,” said WHO Health Emergencies Officer Michael Ryan.

“Without significant investments in research and development before the Covid-19 pandemic, it would not have been possible to develop safe and effective vaccines in record time,” he stressed. This list was first published in 2017.

Vaccine Roadmap

It currently includes Covid-19, Ebola virus, Lassa fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Zika and Nipah viruses and disease X. During their work, the experts will identify, for each pathogen identified as a priority, the gaps in knowledge and the priorities for research.

A roadmap for the development of vaccines, treatments and screening tests can then be developed. “The list of priority pathogens has become a reference for the research community”, indicating “where to focus efforts to manage the next threat”, explained Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientific officer of the WHO. The revised list of pathogens must be made public by April 2023.

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