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Scientists creating vaccine for next – Disease X – pandemic

As the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists are already developing vaccines to protect against the next one – even though they don’t yet know what will cause it.

They are targeting an unknown, highly infectious virus they’ve coined “Disease X”, AstraZeneca vaccine co-developer Dame Sarah Gilbert and her colleagues at the University of Oxford hoping that if an unexpected virus emerges, these vaccines will be able to be rapidly tweaked to respond to the threat.

The jabs they’re working on are for a long list of illnesses that have sparked outbreaks, including Middle East respiratory syndrome – caused by a deadly virus transmitted from camels to humans that is suspected to have killed up to 35% of infected patients – and Nipah virus, a lethal bat-borne pathogen that causes fever, vomiting and respiratory infections, and which recently killed two people in India.

“We’re making sure we’ve looked at all of the different families of viruses that are likely to cause outbreaks,” Gilbert told a panel at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity last week, “and working on at least one example from each of those families.”

The English vaccinologist said her team had used the concept of Disease X – a placeholder term first adopted by the WHO in 2018 – when developing their Covid-19 vaccine. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that it was based on years of research, trials and what are known as platform technologies.

These platforms can be easily adapted to create different vaccines, speeding up the time it takes to respond to an emerging infectious disease.

“We already had a head start in thinking about what you do with Disease X,” she added.

Professor Paul Young, a University of Queensland virologist who co-led a consortium that developed a Covid-19 vaccine candidate in 2020, said it was difficult to predict what the next pandemic might look like, but it was probable that respiratory pathogens would be behind it.

“They are the ones that tend to spread out in a pandemic environment more than others,” he said. “So we are focused on those.”

Professor Terry Nolan, head of the vaccine and immunisation research group at the Doherty Institute, said he was most worried about the jump of illnesses from animal to humans.

“That can’t be predicted with any certainty at all,” he said, adding that an influenza pandemic was the most likely future threat.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been linked to a rare but deadly blood clot disease that some scientists believe is caused by a rare gene and exposure to a mystery pathogen.

“We haven’t fully got to the bottom of that yet,” Gilbert said. “It’s very difficult to investigate things that are incredibly rare.”

Nolan said communicating the benefits of vaccination to the public became difficult after the AstraZeneca vaccine blood clot syndrome emerged.

He said this coincided with a period when there was a lack of virus circulating in the community due to lockdowns.

“The public got very confused,” he said. “We’ve got to find better ways of keeping that messaging simple, and understanding where we’re starting from and what we’re doing to protect the future as opposed to protecting what might happen tomorrow.”


Sydney Morning Herald article – What’s the next pandemic? Scientists are already working on a vaccine (Open access)


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Two die in India’s fourth wave of Nipah virus


Novel coronavirus imaging features overlap with SARS and MERS


Global health regulations amended for future pandemics


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UN approves global accord on pandemic response

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