Did "Disease X" Spark the COVID-19 Pandemic?

From patterns to predictions.

Posted May 05, 2020

In early 2018, Megan Gannon wrote that the World Health Organization listed "Disease X" among the diseases most in need of research and development. She wrote that Disease X is not a specific illness, but rather a hypothetical epidemic that could be caused by a pathogen (a contagious strain of a virus or bacterium) that we don't yet realize affects humans. Experts at the World Health Summit in Berlin warned that we're not prepared to find such a disease as it’s likely an animal source. (Gannon, 2018).

It was said back then Disease X would likely result from a virus originating in animals and would emerge somewhere on the planet where economic development drives people and wildlife together. Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist, believed that “Disease X would probably be confused with other diseases early in the outbreak and would spread quickly and silently; exploiting networks of human travel and trade, it would reach multiple countries and thwart containment. Disease X would have a mortality rate higher than the seasonal flu but would spread as easily as the flu. It would shake financial markets even before it achieved pandemic status” (Daszak, 2020).

Disease X is now unmasked. COVID-19 is Disease X. That COVID-19 could be predicted years earlier was not just a wild guess. A pattern had already been established. Most emerging epidemic threats — from Ebola to SARS — have been zoonotic diseases, meaning they originate in animals (https://healthtian.com/zoonotic-diseases). 

 Courtesy of Healthian. com
Most emerging epidemic threats — from Ebola to SARS — have been zoonotic diseases (originating in animals).
Source: Courtesy of Healthian. com

The vast majority- three out of every four- of new infectious diseases in people, in fact, come from animals – from wildlife and from the livestock we keep in ever-larger numbers. Three dozen of these we can catch directly through touch and there are more than four dozen that result from bites. (Gannon, 2018).

The 1918 influenza pandemic swept across the world within months, killing an estimated 50 million people — more than any other illness in recorded history for the short time frame involved. The H1N1 influenza virus that infected more than one-third of the globe had an avian origin. The bubonic plague of the 14th century is the epitome of a pandemic that traveled worldwide. Some 75 million people died — at a time when there were only about 360 million living on Earth. Death came in a matter of days, and it was excruciatingly painful. It was carried by rodents and even cats and hopped to humans through bites from infected fleas (Live Science Staff, 2020).

If we are to prevent these epidemics in the future, we need to step back and look at the big picture. The present epidemic has many things in common with past epidemics. Most epidemics were caused by a contagion that jumped from an animal to a human. For this to happen, animals must be in close contact with humans. What drives animals and humans to be in close contact? This is where big picture thinking becomes important. Our war with the environment is what underlies many epidemics (Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics, 2020).

It is a crisis of our making. We clear forests and remove habitat, bringing wild animals closer to human settlements. And we hunt and sell wildlife, often endangered, increasing the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans. What’s more, human-caused climate change is making this worse. Along with habitat loss, shifting climate zones are causing wildlife to migrate to new places, where they interact with humans and other species they haven’t previously encountered. This increases the risk of new diseases emerging. It’s no surprise that COVID-19 is just the latest new infectious disease arising from our collision with nature. (Fiona Armstrong, 2020).

Since our lives have ground to a standstill, we have witnessed how nature has benefitted from the pandemic. The Los Angeles smog has lifted, water in Venice’s canals has cleared and China’s factory emissions have fallen so dramatically the change can be seen from space. (Condie, 2020).

Credit to Earthobservatory NASA
NASA confirms a fall in greenhouse gas emissions in China amid coronavirus outbreak
Source: Credit to Earthobservatory NASA

The satellite images of China (on left) show the dramatic decrease in the air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, from January 1 to February 10, 2020. As some have argued, COVID-19 presents society with an opportunity to actually respond to climate change through “planned degrowth” that prioritizes the well-being of people over profit margins. This might occur if people become accustomed to lifestyles and work patterns that prioritize slowing down, commuting less, shortening workweeks, abolishing rents, redistributing income from the richest to the poorest, prioritizing workers health (especially for low-wage migrant workers who are substantially more vulnerable in the face of an economic downturn), and relying on more localized supply chains (Vijay Kolinjivadi, 2020)


Condie, S. (2020, April 5). Coronavirus Lockdowns Clear the Air, but the Green Effect Could Be Fleeting . Retrieved from Wall Street Journal -The Economy: https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-lockdowns-clear-the-air-but-the-green-effect-could-be-fleeting-11586095204?mod=article_inline

Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics. (2020, March 30). Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-is-a-wake-up-call-our-war-with-the-environment-is-leading-to-pandemics-135023

Daszak, P. (2020, February 27). We Knew Disease X Was Coming. It’s Here Now. Retrieved from The New York Times Opinion : https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/opinion/coronavirus-pandemics.html

Fiona Armstrong, A. C. (2020, March 30). Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics . Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-is-a-wake-up-call-our-war-with-the-environment-is-leading-to-pandemics-135023

Gannon, M. (2018, October 18). An Unknown 'Disease X' Could Become an Epidemic. Can We Find It Before It's Too Late? Retrieved from Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/63862-disease-x-animal-source.html

Staff, L. S. (2020, March 6). 11 Deadly diseases that hopped across species. Retrieved from Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/12951-10-infectious-diseases-ebola-plague-influenza.html

Vijay Kolinjivadi. (2020, April 9). This Pandemic IS Ecological Breakdown: Different Tempo, Same Song. Retrieved from Resilience: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-04-09/this-pandemic-is-ecological-breakdown-different-tempo-same-song/