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Disease X is a hypothetical disease

Contrary to the fact, social media posts discuss Disease X as a real disease

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Claim: Director General of WHO Dr Tedros Adhanom has said that Disease X is a global problem and that we should be prepared for it.

Fact: The World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos discussed Disease X, a hypothetical outbreak. Disease X is not a specific disease but is the name given to a potential novel infectious agent.

On 18 January 2024, The Current shared an Instagram post (archived) claiming that the WHO has said that the “world must be ready to fight ‘disease X’ ”. 

The caption of the image states:

“Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom has said that Disease X is a global problem that we need to be prepared for. ”

The caption implies that Disease X is spreading at a rate that the WHO finds alarming.

Fact or Fiction?

With a short Google search on “Disease X”, we found this article published by Al Jazeera, which states that “Disease X is not a specific disease but is the name given to a potential novel infectious agent.” 

The article talks about how the WHO Director-General Tedros joined a panel of health industry leaders at the WEF summit in Davos to discuss strategies for the next potential pandemic. Al Jazeera states that Disease X represents an illness that is currently unknown, but could pose a serious danger to humanity and hence necessitates preparedness. Other experts on the panel included Michel Demare, chair of the board at AstraZeneca, and Preetha Reddy, executive vice chairperson at Apollo Hospitals. 

Other organizations such as New Scientist and Bloomberg have published articles about Disease X as well. The New Scientist quotes Tedros: “Disease X is a placeholder,” he says. “Whatever the disease is, you can prepare for it.”

An article titled “Are we ethically prepared for Disease X?” was published by the University of Oxford. It says, “According to some estimates, there is more than a one in four chance in the next decade of another global pandemic. We don’t know whether this will be influenza, a coronavirus (like SARS and COVID), or something completely new. The World Health Organisation refers to this unknown future threat as ‘Disease X’.”

The complete WEF panel was uploaded on the website on 17 January 2024 and can be seen here. Right in the beginning, Shyam Bishen, Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum, speaks about the purpose of the panel “How do we prepare for the next emergency? How do we prepare our health systems overall for the next pandemic?”

At the 4:22 mark, Nancy Brown introduces Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who gives his opening remarks, answering the question about what should a healthcare system prioritise in response to crisis situations. “I would like to start with the disease X, which is attracting a lot of attention as I hope you have seen on social media, but it is not a new idea. The first time we used this terminology was in 2018. The discussions were in 2017, I was just a new director general. As you know, we annually list the emerging diseases like MERS, Zika, Ebola – those we know. But then we said there are things that are unknown that may happen, and anything happening is a matter of when, not if. So we need to have a placeholder for that – for the disease we dont know that may come. And that is when we gave the name disease X.”

Dr Tedros’ intention is to explain that disease X is named in anticipation of something that may happen. Not to cause alarm citing a new disease that has been discovered. 

Virality

On Instagram, the post received more than 2,600 interactions. 

Other similarly misleading posts were shared on Facebook here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Conclusion: Disease X is a hypothetical disease.

Background image in cover photo: Council of Foreign Relations 

To appeal against our fact-check, please send an email to appeals@sochfactcheck.com 

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