9th Dec 2023


The looming threat of 'Disease X'

  • Developing mRNA vaccines further is crucial for facing future infectious diseases. (Photo: Pexels – Martin Lopez)
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Europe has faced numerous global health challenges in recent years, with the Covid-19 pandemic being the starkest reminder of our vulnerability. While SARS‑CoV‑2 has demonstrated that we cannot stop the evolution of viruses, it has also highlighted the importance of safeguarding our healthcare systems.

Today, there is another looming threat that demands immediate attention from European government and industry stakeholders alike: Disease X.

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  • (Photo: Moderna)

The concept of Disease X arose from the recognition that new infectious diseases can emerge unexpectedly, as demonstrated by previous outbreaks such as MERS and Covid-19.

Its possible emergence arises from the constant evolution and adaptation of pathogens, increased global travel, urbanisation, changes in human-animal interactions, and other factors that can facilitate the emergence and spread of novel infectious diseases such as climate change.

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified priority pathogens that could cause deadly future pandemics, such as Zika, Ebola, and 'Disease X.' In parallel, the scientific initiative Global Virome Project identified around 1,67 million unknown viruses, including 827,000 that had the potential to be transmitted to humans.

Defined as "an unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic," Disease X stands out as a global public health challenge.

To anticipate uncertain but potentially dangerous epidemics, healthcare organisations must prepare to provide a sustainable response to a scenario that could become a reality sooner than we think. Key technologies and innovations should be leveraged towards this objective, including mRNA technology for vaccine development, which has proven its value and potential during the Covid-19 pandemic.

mRNA technology is one of the major keys to preventing future pandemics. The value of mRNA lies in its ability to rapidly adapt to new viral strains, making it a vital tool in the fight against emerging variants and pathogens.

Furthermore, mRNA technology offers several advantages, including faster development timelines, scalability, and improved safety profiles compared to traditional vaccine approaches. Its versatility enables rapid response to future pandemics, as scientists can quickly design and manufacture mRNA-based vaccines tailored to specific viral threats. The profound impact of mRNA technology on pandemic preparedness cannot be understated, making it a cornerstone in our collective efforts to safeguard public health.

While the potential of mRNA is extensive, pandemic response begins with pandemic prevention. To this end, at Moderna, we have a broad portfolio of vaccine programs that target emerging or neglected infectious diseases that threaten public health. Those include respiratory threats with high pandemic potential, like influenza and beta-coronaviruses, and pathogens identified by WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation that frequently cause localised outbreaks and inform future preparedness for Disease X. By the end of 2022, Moderna had 12 Global Public Health programmes in research and development.

Other actions we have taken to improve pandemic preparedness include the creation of a collaboration-based program, mRNA Access, allowing disease experts around the world to translate their understanding of immune markers of protection into effective mRNA vaccines. Researchers can utilise Moderna's mRNA technology platform to pursue research in their lab to design novel vaccines against emerging and neglected infectious diseases. As of today, 15 geographically dispersed institutions are participating in the program.

A key pillar of our global health strategy is building regional manufacturing capability. We have previously announced plans to build facilities in Australia, Canada, Kenya, and the United Kingdom, which can be deployed in response to a pandemic outbreak.

One of the key aspects of our mRNA platform is that a single manufacturing facility can be used to manufacture any of our mRNA medicines. Specifically in Europe, Moderna has worked closely with established contract manufacturers in Italy, Spain, and Switzerland to set up a manufacturing and supply network in the region. Spain has since matured into Moderna's largest end-to-end production hub outside the US.

The world must learn from past experiences and prepare to act faster when faced with the next pandemic. As recently witnessed, mRNA technology offers a potential solution in the fight against future pandemics and Disease X, providing a versatile and effective defence mechanism. Our responsibility is to collaborate and work to maximise its potential to build resilient healthcare systems capable of combating future threats and safeguarding public health.

Author bio

Hamilton Bennett is Senior Director, Vaccine Access and Partnerships, at Moderna.


This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.


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