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WHO, looking for diseases that might trigger future outbreaks and pandemics

by Pragati Singh

The World Health Organization (WHO) is initiating a worldwide scientific process to update the list of priority pathogens—agents that might cause outbreaks or pandemics—to lead global investment, R&D, particularly in vaccinations, testing, and treatments. The WHO stated in a statement on Monday that beginning with a conference last Friday, November 18, over 300 experts would review the data on over 25 virus families and bacteria, as well as “Disease X.” Disease X is included to represent an undiscovered disease that has the potential to create a major international epidemic. The specialists will offer a list of priority diseases that require further investigation and funding.

The procedure will incorporate scientific and public health criteria, as well as socioeconomic effect, access, and equity factors. The list was initially released in 2017, with the most recent prioritising process taking place in 2018. COVID-19, Crimean-Cong haemorrhagic fever, Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease, Lassa fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Nipah and henipaviral infections, Rift Valley fever, Zika, and Disease X are among those now on the list.

“Targeting priority pathogens and virus families for research and development of countermeasures is essential for a fast and effective epidemic and pandemic response. Without significant R&D investments prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would not have been possible to have safe and effective vaccines developed in record time,” said Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.

The WHO R&D Blueprint for Epidemics has prepared R&D roadmaps that outline knowledge gaps and research goals for those diseases recognised as priority. Where applicable, target product profiles are created to tell developers about the intended requirements for vaccinations, treatments, and diagnostic tests. To build these technologies, efforts are also undertaken to map, assemble, and facilitate clinical trials. Complementary approaches, such as increased regulatory and ethical control, are also being proposed.

“This list of priority pathogens has become a reference point for the scientific community on where to focus resources to handle the next danger,” said WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan. “It is developed together with experts in the field, and is the agreed direction for where we–as a global research community–need to invest energy and funds to develop tests, treatments and vaccines. We thank our donors like the US government, our partners, and the scientists who work with WHO to make this possible.”


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