There will “absolutely” be another pandemic-causing Disease X, a leading scientist has said as he called for authorities to be aware of a whole range of other viruses.
Every year or two, scientists are discovering one or two viruses that are transmissible to humans, and the rate has been constant for more than 50 years, Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology said.
He said it is a matter of when the next pandemic will hit, not if.
Prof Woolhouse said authorities need to be thinking about the next threat now: “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.”
The University of Edinburgh professor said the UK was ill-prepared for the coronavirus pandemic because it had been preparing for the pandemic influenza instead.
He said it was not that the UK did not have any plans, it actually had “pretty mature and sophisticated plans”.
Prof Woolhouse said: “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.
“We were all prepared to meet the pandemic flu, and we got something else.
“And that I think for me is the big lesson – I have tried to push this for many years now – is don’t be overly prescriptive about what you think’s going to come next.
“Be broad-minded, open-minded about and look at the range of possibilities.
“We absolutely do need to be more aware of these events, but I think this game of trying to guess what it will be is very risky.
“We just played it, and it didn’t do us any favours. We prepared, as I say, for the wrong exam, and we don’t want to do that next time.”
Asked if the next Disease X could be around the corner, Prof Woolhouse said “absolutely”. He added: “You could use the phrase ‘it is when, not if’.”
The professor said that in 2017, he and his colleagues got the World Health Organisation (WHO) to add something called Disease X to its list of priority diseases.
He explained: “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.”
He said that in 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.
Speaking about the discovery of new viruses transmissible to humans, he said: “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.”
He said: “We can’t put a handle on when, of course. The precise mechanism by which a virus comes out is always extremely unpredictable.”
On Tuesday, the UK government’s figure for Covid-19 related deaths surpassed 100,000.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for every life lost. A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) expert has warned the UK could see another 50,000 deaths from coronavirus.
This week marks a year since the first Covid-19 cases were reported in the UK, and the anniversary of the first known death in the country.
January 30 also marks one year since the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) over the virus.