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HomeTop NewsNext pandemic is a matter of 'when not if'~ Scientist warns

Next pandemic is a matter of ‘when not if’~ Scientist warns

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A leading British scientist has suggested another pandemic-causing ‘Disease X’ could be around the corner – and it is a matter of ‘when not if’.

Professor Mark Woolhouse added that it is difficult to tell when such a disease may emerge, and the precise mechanism of how it comes out is always unpredictable.

The expert in infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh said that pandemic flu is at the top of the list for outbreaks to be concerned about, but he added that there is a whole range of other viruses to be aware of.

Woolhouse told how he and some colleagues got the World Health Organisation to add something called Disease X to its list of priority diseases four years ago.

He said: “We thought that the next emerging pandemic might be a virus that we don’t even know about yet – quite frankly we thought it was the most likely scenario.”

Woolhouse said that in a meeting the following year experts considered what the disease might be, and one possibility they came up with was a novel coronavirus related to Mers or Sars.

He said: “I mean, it really couldn’t be more accurate than that. This new virus is so closely related to Sars, so they absolutely pinpointed it as one of the threats.”

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Asked if the next Disease X could potentially be around the corner, Prof Woolhouse said ‘absolutely’.

Speaking independently, he said: ‘You could use the phrase ‘it is when, not if’.

“We can’t put a handle on when, of course. The precise mechanism by which a virus comes out is always extremely unpredictable. You can never predict precise events, so you have to do it on sort of statistical grounds probability.”

Woolhouse said that every year or two scientists are discovering maybe one or two viruses that are transmissible to humans, and the rate has been constant for more than 50 years.

He added: “That’s going to keep happening. It’s picking up the ones that are actually going to cause the next pandemic out of this constant trickle of new viruses that’s coming along.

“Occasionally one comes along, so spotting the rare event is always hard.”

Asked if there was now a greater appetite among policymakers to be aware of the risk of future pandemics, Woolhouse said: ‘I’m not sure that there’s a lot of thinking going on about the next threat, while the world is concentrating full tilt on dealing with the one it’s got.

“I absolutely agree that there needs to be more thought about that.”

He added that it was not that the UK did not have any plans, and actually had ‘pretty mature and sophisticated plans’ to react to the next pandemic influenza.

“Unfortunately, I like to put it, we did a lot of work, we did our revision, we went into the exam room, and they gave us the wrong paper.

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