March 13, 2018 11:39 am
Updated: March 13, 2018 11:41 am

‘Disease X’ listed as potential global endemic by World Health Organization — but what is it?

FILE - Disease X isn't yet known to exist, but health officials recognize that the next big outbreak could come from a virus they've not yet encountered, so they want to be ready.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has added a mystery disease to a list of viruses that could cause a future global pandemic.

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This comes after the WHO released a list of diseases in its 2018 R&D Blueprint. The document lists the illnesses that the WHO believes could pose a serious risk to public health, such as the Ebola virus, the Zika virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

READ MORE: Canadian docs say they’ve discovered a new way to beat superbugs – for now

But for the first time, the organization added “Disease X” to the list after a review by health experts in February. Disease X isn’t yet known to exist, but health officials recognize that the next big outbreak could come from a virus they’ve not yet encountered, so they want to be ready.

“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease,” the WHO stated in a release.

The goal is to be prepared as much as possible for an unknown “Disease X”, it added.

WATCH: Here’s how hard Zika virus hit Canadian tourists last year

“History tells us that it is likely the next big outbreak will be something we have not seen before,” WHO committee science adviser John-Arne Rottingen told the Telegraph. “The point is to make sure we prepare and plan flexibly in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests.”

“It may seem strange to be adding an ‘X,’ but the point is to make sure we prepare and plan flexibly in terms of vaccines and diagnostic tests. We want to see ‘plug and play’ platforms developed which will work for any, or a wide number of diseases; systems that will allow us to create countermeasures at speed.”

READ MORE: SARS may have originated in Chinese bat cave and new outbreak could happen, scientists say

If public health is hit by the unknown virus, scientists say there need to be a system in place that could rapidly develop a vaccine to fight it.

Scientists would have to create customizable recipes for creating vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.

But first scientists must study entire classes of viruses, such yellow fever, Zika virus and West Nile virus. “If you develop an understanding of the commonalities of those, you can respond more rapidly,” he said.

WATCH: Researchers open one-of-a-kind lab in Canada to study potentially deadly tropical disease

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