Why the Arab region must plan for ‘Disease X’ or the next pandemic

Analysis Why the Arab region must plan for ‘Disease X’ or the next pandemic
WHO researchers anticipate the next “Disease X” will be caused by a new virus derived from one of approximately 25 viral families which have already demonstrated the ability to infect humans. (AFP/ File)
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Updated 18 February 2024
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Why the Arab region must plan for ‘Disease X’ or the next pandemic

Why the Arab region must plan for ‘Disease X’ or the next pandemic
  • WHO and health chiefs have called for a pandemic treaty so the world can better prepare for future outbreaks
  • Gulf states fared better than most during COVID-19 pandemic, but experts believe lessons must still be learned

DUBAI: When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, governments worldwide were caught off guard. Having faced no health emergency of this magnitude in generations, states were left scrambling to protect their populations and shield their economies.

Now that life has largely returned to normal following years of social distancing, travel controls and trade disruption, global health experts are calling on governments to prepare for the next pandemic — ominously dubbed “Disease X.”

Such is the sense of foreboding that the mere mention of “Disease X” — x being the algebraic symbol for the unknown — at this year’s World Economic Forum sparked panic on social media as people took the hypothetical warning literally.




Experts voiced concerns about the likelihood of another pandemic in the future. (AFP/File)

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health was forced to issue a statement to allay fears of a new outbreak, clarifying that “Disease X” was merely a placeholder name issued by the World Health Organization to refer to the possibility of a future pandemic.

The ministry also emphasized that cautionary statements from the WHO and scientists were only intended to promote greater global preparedness in the face of new and emerging threats to public health.

“The recurring message year after year is that humans are vulnerable to epidemics due to our coexistence with numerous viruses and germs,” the ministry said.

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Indeed, although health experts were not announcing the emergence of a sinister new disease, they were voicing concerns about the likelihood of another pandemic in the future — one that could be even more deadly than COVID-19 and that the world is still ill-prepared for.

“If and when it occurs, it would have the potential to cause death and devastation,” Dr. Fabrizio Facchini, a consultant pulmonologist at Medcare Hospital Al-Safa in Dubai, told Arab News.

According to Dr. Facchini, microbiologists and epidemiologists are concerned that a new virus could emerge in the future which would have a similar impact to the deadly Spanish flu of 1918-20.




COVID-19 killed around 7 million people and infected 700 million. (AFP/File)

To put that in perspective, the Spanish flu, or “Great Influenza,” killed an estimated 50 million people and infected approximately one-third of the global population.

By comparison, COVID-19 killed around 7 million people and infected 700 million as of January 2023, according to WHO figures. The pandemic was officially declared over in May that year, although the virus continues to travel.

“Defining this potential threat as ‘Disease X’ is intended to prioritize preparations for dealing with a disease that would not have vaccinations or medications in place and could cause a significant epidemic or pandemic in the future,” Dr. Facchini said.

INNUMBERS

50m — Deaths from Spanish flu, which infected 33% of the global population (1918-20).

7m — Deaths linked to COVID-19, which infected 700m people worldwide (as of Jan. 2023).

Source: WHO, CDC

Two years into the pandemic, the WHO attributed approximately 1.4 million deaths in the Middle East and Asia to COVID-19. While some nations in the region fared better than others, experts believe there are still lessons to be learned for future outbreaks.

“Although the UAE did well in COVID-19 pandemic preparedness compared with most other countries, there are still steps they should take to prepare for a ‘Disease X’ or other possible epidemics,” Chandulal Khakhar, a Sharjah-based pharmacist, told Arab News.

Khakhar believes hospital capacity is something authorities must examine, considering the “significant strain” experienced by healthcare facilities during the pandemic. Additionally, critical care should be prioritized in health centers and hospitals.

“To do this, healthcare should begin in communities, and preventive care should be done at home,” he said.




Health experts want to see a more joined-up approach to pandemic preparation and response. (AFP/ File)

As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, technology increasingly played a larger role in everyday lives and healthcare systems.

“Wearable devices to track health progress and community health programs should be launched,” said Khakhar. “And remote checkups such as telehealth should be improved and enforced.”

The number of COVID-19 deaths associated with countries in the Middle East and North Africa relative to other regions remained low during the pandemic, both in total and per capita terms, according to data from the Brookings Doha Center.

This trend may be influenced these countries’ relatively young populations, as well as the robustness of healthcare systems, particularly in Gulf states.

Initially, research showed the highest number of deaths per million population were in Lebanon and Iraq. However, the Gulf states experienced an uptick by June 2020, coinciding with some of the highest infection rates in the region.

By autumn, the Gulf countries reported some of the lowest fatality figures in the region, while numbers rose notably in Iraq, Jordan, Oman and Tunisia amid a second wave of deaths in the late summer.

Still, cumulative deaths have remained low in the Gulf despite many parts of the region having grappled with a surge in fatalities when subsequent waves of the virus strained healthcare systems.





Governments and stakeholders can leverage the potential of mRNA vaccine technology to expedite the development of new vaccines if and when needed. (AFP/File)

This was especially evident for Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia, where the overall number of deaths increased significantly from 2021 onward.

Health experts want to see a more joined-up approach to pandemic preparation and response, in part to make public health outcomes more equitable between wealthy and developing nations.

In a joint statement issued at the WEF, two dozen heads of state called for a comprehensive shift involving all sectors of government and society, forming the basis of a “pandemic treaty.”

Such an approach aims to enhance national, regional and global capacities and resilience in preparation for future pandemics.

FASTFACT

‘Disease X’ is the name given by scientists and the WHO to an unknown pathogen that could emerge in future and cause a serious international epidemic or pandemic.

Because public health and national defense experts are concerned the next pandemic could be even more damaging than COVID-19, Dr. Facchini said it was incumbent on countries to prepare for “whatever biology brings, whether it is from nature, engineering, or a laboratory accident.”

The WHO first introduced the term “Disease X” in 2017 when discussing priority diseases alongside conditions like Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Ebola, Lassa fever, Zika, and then COVID-19, which is considered the first “Disease X” — of more to come.

These viruses were flagged as international priorities, emphasizing the need for states to increase their research and development into their symptoms, spread, treatment and inoculation.




Millions of people have been vaccinated since the emergence of COVID-19, greatly reducing the severity of symptoms. (AFP/File)

WHO researchers anticipate the next “Disease X” will be caused by a new virus derived from one of approximately 25 viral families which have already demonstrated the ability to infect humans.

“The next pandemic pathogen may not be a coronavirus at all. Experts are looking into a range of bird flu strains due to increased transmission to and among mammals, as well as several recent human cases in various parts of the world,” Dr. Facchini said.

Millions of people have been vaccinated since the emergence of COVID-19, greatly reducing the severity of symptoms and improving survivability. However, immunization against this particular coronavirus does not guarantee protection against new ones.

“Coronaviruses have caused some of the most deadly outbreaks in recent decades,” said Dr. Facchini.

These viruses — commonly transmitted from animal hosts to humans and causing fatal respiratory infections — have been observed at least three times this century.

While populations may not be protected against the next “Disease X,” governments and stakeholders can leverage the potential of mRNA vaccine technology to expedite the development of new vaccines if and when needed.

The WHO has already initiated measures in preparation for future outbreaks, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus revealed at this year’s WEF.




Experts suggest regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and refraining from smoking as helpful to reducing susceptibility to diseases. (AFP/File)

Proactive steps include the establishment of a pandemic fund and creation of a “technology transfer hub” in South Africa, in part to address vaccine inequity between high and low income countries.

Moreover, Ghebreyesus called on countries to sign the WHO’s pandemic treaty, so the world can better prepare for inevitable future outbreaks.

“The pandemic agreement can bring all the experience, all the challenges that we have faced, and all the solutions into one,” he said.

Regarding the ability to address potential outbreaks effectively, Dr. Facchini stressed the importance of early detection, surveillance and monitoring of possible diseases in both animal and human populations.

“Investing in research and development of new vaccines, global cooperation, public awareness, and education can all help to halt the next pandemic,” he said.




Global health experts are calling on governments to prepare for the next pandemic — ominously dubbed “Disease X.” (AFP/ File)

And, while individuals cannot control every aspect of their health, Dr. Facchini said basic steps can be taken to maximize personal well-being.

These include engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and refraining from smoking and other vices which heighten susceptibility to diseases.

“One of the lessons we learnt from the pandemic was that people in less favorable conditions fared worse,” said Dr. Facchini. “Those in worse health bore the burden of hospitalizations.”


Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah

Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah
Updated 5 sec ago
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Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah

Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah
  • Israel obstructing access to victims of Hamas Oct. 7 attack: UN probe

GENEVA/CAIRO: Israeli tanks pushed back into some areas of the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday which they had left weeks ago, while warplanes conducted airstrikes on Rafah, the Palestinians’ last refuge in the south of the territory, killing and wounding several people, medics and residents said.

Residents reported an internet outage in the areas of Beit Hanoun and Jabalia in northern Gaza. 

Tanks advanced into Beit Hanoun and surrounded some schools where displaced families have taken refuge, said the residents and media outlets of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

“Occupation soldiers ordered all families inside the schools and the nearby houses where the tanks had advanced to evacuate. 

The soldiers detained many men,” one resident of northern Gaza said via a chat app.

Beit Hanoun, home to 60,000 people, was one of the first areas targeted by Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza last October. 

Heavy bombardment turned most of Beit Hanoun, once known as “the basket of fruit” because of its orchards, into a ghost town comprising piles of rubble.

Many families who had returned to Beit Hanoun and Jabalia in recent weeks after Israeli forces withdrew, began moving out again on Tuesday because of the new raid, some residents said.

Palestinian health officials said in one strike, Israel killed four people and wounded several others in Rafah, where over half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering and bracing for a planned Israeli ground offensive into the city, which borders Egypt.

The Israeli military said its forces continued to operate in the central Gaza Strip and that they had killed several gunmen who attempted to attack them.

“Furthermore, over the past day, IDF fighter jets and aircraft destroyed a missile launcher along with dozens of terrorist infrastructure, terror tunnels, and military compounds where armed Hamas terrorists were located,” it added.

In Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, residents said Israeli planes had bombed and destroyed four multi-story residential buildings on Tuesday.

Israel is still imposing “unlawful” restrictions on humanitarian relief for Gaza, the UN human rights office said on Tuesday, despite assertions from Israel and others that barriers have eased.

The amount of aid now entering Gaza is disputed, with Israel and Washington saying aid flows have risen in recent days but UN agencies say it is still far below bare minimum levels.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said 33,843 Palestinians have so far been killed by Israeli fire since Oct. 7, including 46 in the past 24 hours.

Israel is preventing UN investigators from speaking to witnesses and victims of the Oct. 7 attack, former UN rights chief Navi Pillay, who is chairing a three-person probe, said.

The unprecedented Commission of Inquiry was established by the UN Human Rights Council in May 2021 to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“I deplore the fact that people inside Israel who wish to speak to us are being denied that opportunity, because we cannot get access into Israel,” Pillay said.

The investigation briefed diplomats at the UN in Geneva on its work and said that since Oct. 7, it had focused on the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas.

“So far as the government of Israel is concerned, we have faced not merely a lack of cooperation but active obstruction of our efforts to receive evidence from Israeli witnesses and victims to the events that occurred in southern Israel,” said Chris Sidoti, one of the three members of the inquiry.

The Gaza war began with Hamas’s attack against Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

The militants also took about 250 hostages, of whom Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

Pillay, 82, a South African former High Court judge, said the commission was investigating alleged crimes during the Hamas attack as well as some allegedly committed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank.

Sidoti, speaking via video-link, said the investigation had found it difficult to collect evidence from large numbers of witnesses.


Israel kills local Hezbollah commander in Lebanon strike

Israel kills local Hezbollah commander in Lebanon strike
Updated 37 sec ago
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Israel kills local Hezbollah commander in Lebanon strike

Israel kills local Hezbollah commander in Lebanon strike
BEIRUT: An Israeli strike Tuesday killed a local Hezbollah commander in south Lebanon, the Israeli army said, with the Iran-backed group saying three of its members were killed and launching rockets in retaliation.
Israel and Hamas ally Hezbollah have been exchanging near-daily cross-border fire since the Palestinian militant group attacked southern Israel on October 7, triggering war in the Gaza Strip.
Tuesday’s exchanges came with regional tensions high after Iran launched missile and drone attacks on Israel over the weekend in retaliation for a deadly Israeli strike on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus.
The Israeli military said its “aircraft struck and eliminated Ismail Yusef Baz, the commander of Hezbollah’s coastal sector,” adding he was killed in south Lebanon’s Ain Baal area.
Aircraft also hit “Hezbollah military structures and terrorist operatives” elsewhere in south Lebanon on Tuesday, it said in a separate statement.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency (NNA) reported one dead in an Israeli strike on a car in Ain Baal, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the border.
Hezbollah said in a statement that Baz had been killed, without mentioning his rank or role, while a source close to the group told AFP that “the field commander in charge of the Naqura region” had been killed “in an Israeli strike.”
The NNA also said an “enemy strike” targeted two cars in Shehabiya, about 10 kilometers from Ain Baal, reporting an unspecified number of dead and wounded.
Hezbollah later said that two more of its fighters had been killed, while its ally the Amal movement announced one dead in Ain Baal.
Hezbollah said it launched rockets at several Israeli military bases “in response to the Israeli enemy’s attacks” on Lebanese villages, in particular Ain Baal and Shehabiya.
Earlier Tuesday, Hezbollah had said its fighters launched an “air attack with suicide drones in two phases... striking the Iron Dome (air defense system) platforms and their crew” in the Beit Hillel area.
The Israeli military said “two armed” drones entered from Lebanon and exploded near Beit Hillel, with local Israeli authorities saying three people were wounded.
On Monday, Hezbollah targeted Israeli troops with explosive devices, wounding four soldiers who crossed into Lebanese territory, the first such attack in six months of clashes.
The violence has killed at least 368 people in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also including at least 70 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
In Israel, the military says 10 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed since hostilities began.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes on both sides of the border, with the violence fueling fears of all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006.

Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says

Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says
Updated 3 min 38 sec ago
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Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says

Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says
  • Andrea De Domenico says the situation in the territory during Israel’s continuing war against Hamas is ‘dire, tense and very volatile’
  • He warns it will ‘take years’ for Gaza’s 625,000 students to return to their studies as every university is destroyed and schools have been closed since the war began

LONDON: The 2 million Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip can now be accurately described as a population of “survivors,” a UN humanitarian chief said on Tuesday.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said the situation in Gaza during Israel’s continuing war against Hamas is “dire, tense and very volatile.”

The OCHA is “making all effort possible” to deliver aid to the territory, he added, but “the reality is that there is very little that we can bring to inside Gaza to tackle displacement and battle the looming famine.”

De Domenico said that if the widely predicted famine in Gaza comes to pass, it would be “completely man-made and preventable.”

He added that while there have been recent additional efforts by the UN, and by the Israelis “to some extent,” to increase the amount of aid entering northern Gaza, the worst-affected part of the territory, the situation would require a “massive operation” simply to reach the “minimum standard” of aid that is needed, which is something the OCHA is not in a position to mount at this time.

On Sunday, the agency said Israel “impeded or denied access” to 41 percent of UN-coordinated aid missions in northern Gaza between April 6 and 12.

A plume of smoke billows during Israeli bombardment at Al-Daraj neighbourhood in Gaza City on April 16 amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

De Domenico also highlighted the “problematic situation” in and around hospitals in Gaza, especially at Al-Shifa where heavy fighting has caused widespread damage and destruction, which he said was proving to be another major obstacle to the delivery of aid and other relief supplies.

“Our team entered (Al-Shifa hospital) in the following days (after the fighting) and have had to deal with a scene of terror; the hospital is completely dysfunctional at this moment,” he said.

“The number of bodies that have been buried in or on the premises of Al-Shifa, or around the hospital, has also been problematic, to the point that UN and Palestinian colleagues have helped the families to start to recognize the remnants of the corpses.”

Also on Tuesday, it was revealed that relentless Israeli airstrikes have destroyed every university in Gaza. This, coupled with the fact that all schools in the territory have been closed since Israel launched its military offensive in October, means it will “take years” for the enclave’s 625,000 students to return to their studies, De Domenico said.

On Monday, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jamie McGoldrick, said about 800,000 Palestinians might be forced to flee Gaza if the Israeli military goes ahead with a threatened ground incursion in the southern city of Rafah, close to the border with Egypt, which has become the final refuge for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting in other parts of the territory.

He added that about 90 percent of approximately 4,000 buildings located along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel have been destroyed or damaged during the war, according to the UN Satellite Center.


Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza

Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza
Updated 41 min 3 sec ago
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Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza

Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza
  • Jordan has carried out 84 humanitarian airdrops independently, 190 in collaboration with other countries

AMMAN: Jordan’s armed forces completed another six airdrops of food aid to the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.

The humanitarian operation was carried out by the Royal Jordanian Air Force, using aircraft provided by Egypt, the US and Germany, the Jordan News Agency reported.

Since the start of Israel's war on Gaza in October, Jordan has completed 84 humanitarian airdrops of its own and 190 in collaboration with other countries.

During an interview with CNN in March, Queen Rania explained why authorities in the country had decided to take action to help people in an area the UN reports to be suffering from the effects of a widespread and severe food crisis.

“We found that after trying so hard in vain to persuade Israel to open the land-access points, we had to do something. We couldn’t just sit idle and watch people starving,” she said.

The airdrops are desperate measures to address a desperate situation, the queen added, describing them as mere “drops in an ocean of unmet needs.”

The Jordanian army said it remains committed to assisting efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
 


Emirati, British FMs discuss regional developments

Emirati, British FMs discuss regional developments
Updated 16 April 2024
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Emirati, British FMs discuss regional developments

Emirati, British FMs discuss regional developments
  • Call followed Iran’s retaliatory drone and missile attack on Israel on Saturday

LONDON: Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan received a phone call from his British counterpart David Cameron regarding the latest regional developments and their impact on global peace and security, Emirates News Agency reported.

The two officials reviewed international efforts aimed at bolstering the response to the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, emphasizing the need to expedite the delivery of safe and sustainable aid to the civilian population there.

The call followed Iran’s retaliatory drone and missile attack on Israel on Saturday.

The strike by more than 300 missiles and drones caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down by its Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan.

Sheikh Abdullah highlighted the critical need for maximum restraint to prevent severe consequences and the potential escalation of instability in the region.

He underscored the importance of dialogue, diplomatic engagement, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for the UN Charter as vital means to resolve conflicts and enhance regional and global peace, stability, and prosperity.