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

  • 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.”


Moroccans in pro-Palestinian march rally against Israel ties

Updated 20 May 2024
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Moroccans in pro-Palestinian march rally against Israel ties

  • Rabat has officially denounced what it said were “flagrant violations of the provisions of international law” by Israel in its war against Hamas, but has not given any indication that normalization with Israel would be undone
  • Israel has killed at least 35,456 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry

CASABLANCA, Morocco: Thousands of Moroccans demonstrated Sunday in Casablanca in support of the Palestinian people and against ties with Israel, an AFP journalist said, more than seven months into the Gaza war.
Protesters in Morocco’s commercial capital chanted “Freedom for Palestine,” “If we don’t speak out, who will?” and “No to normalization,” and many wore keffiyeh scarves or waved Palestinian flags.
The North African kingdom established diplomatic ties with Israel in late 2020 under the US-brokered Abraham Accords which saw similar moves by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Under the deal, the United States recognized Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Since the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip began on October 7, large-scale demonstrations in Morocco have called for the abrogation of the normalization accord.
On Sunday, the demonstrators marched through central Casablanca in a protest called by a grouping of leftist parties and Islamist movements.
“I cannot remain indifferent and silent in the face of what is happening to the Palestinians who are being killed on a daily basis,” demonstrator Zahra Bensoukar, 43, told AFP.
Idriss Amer, 48, said he was protesting “in solidarity with the Palestinian people, against the Zionist massacre in Gaza and against normalization” of ties with Israel.
Rabat has officially denounced what it said were “flagrant violations of the provisions of international law” by Israel in its war against Hamas, but has not given any indication that normalization with Israel would be undone.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas on October 7 launched an unprecedented attack on Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,456 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
Hamas also took about 250 hostages on October 7, of whom 124 remain held in Gaza including 37 the Israeli military says are dead.
 

 


What do we know so far about the mysterious crash of the helicopter carrying Iran’s president?

Updated 19 May 2024
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What do we know so far about the mysterious crash of the helicopter carrying Iran’s president?

  • Initially, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the helicopter “was forced to make a hard landing due to the bad weather and fog”

BEIRUT: The apparent crash of a helicopter carrying Iran’s president and foreign minister on Sunday sent shock waves around the region.
Details remained scant in the hours after the incident, and it was unclear if Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the other officials had survived.
Here’s what we know so far.
WHO WAS ON BOARD THE HELICOPTER AND WHERE WERE THEY GOING?
The helicopter was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province and other officials and bodyguards, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. Raisi was returning from a trip to Iran’s border with Azerbaijan earlier Sunday to inaugurate a dam with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, the news agency said.
WHERE AND HOW DID THE HELICOPTER GO DOWN?
The helicopter apparently crashed or made an emergency landing in the Dizmar forest between the cities of Varzaqan and Jolfa in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province, near its border with Azerbaijan, under circumstances that remain unclear. Initially, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the helicopter “was forced to make a hard landing due to the bad weather and fog.”
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE SEARCH OPERATIONS?
Iranian officials have said the mountainous, forested terrain and heavy fog impeded search-and-rescue operations. The president of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Pir-Hossein Koulivand, said 40 search teams were on the ground in the area despite “challenging weather conditions.” The search is being done by teams on the ground, as “the weather conditions have made it impossible to conduct aerial searches” via drones, Koulivand said, according to IRNA.
IF RAISI DIED IN THE CRASH, HOW MIGHT THIS IMPACT IRAN?
Raisi is seen as a protégé to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a potential successor for his position within the country’s Shiite theocracy. Under the Iranian constitution, if he died, the country’s first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, would become president. Khamenei has publicly assured Iranians that there would be “no disruption to the operations of the country” as a result of the crash.
WHAT HAS THE INTERNATIONAL REACTION BEEN?
Countries including Russia, Iraq and Qatar have made formal statements of concern about Raisi’s fate and offered to assist in the search operations.
Azerbaijani President Aliyev said he was “deeply concerned” to hear of the incident, and affirmed that Azerbaijan was ready to provide any support necessary. Relations between the two countries have been chilly due to Azerbaijan’s diplomatic relations with Israel, Iran’s regional arch-enemy.
There was no immediate official reaction from Israel. Last month, following an Israeli strike on an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed two Iranian generals, Tehran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel. They were mostly shot down and tensions have apparently since subsided.

 


EU Red Sea mission says it defended 120 ships from Houthi attacks

Updated 19 May 2024
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EU Red Sea mission says it defended 120 ships from Houthi attacks

  • Human rights activist raps cases of prisoner fatalities as a result of torture in militia’s captivity

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: The EU mission in the Red Sea, known as EUNAVFOR Aspides, said on Sunday that it had protected over 100 ships while sailing the critical trade channel and shot down more than a dozen Houthi missiles and drones in the last three months.

In a post on X marking three months since the start of its operation, the EU mission, which is now made up of five naval units and 1,000 personnel from 19 contributing nations, said that its forces had destroyed 12 drones, one drone boat, and four ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis from areas under their control in Yemen, as well as provided protection to 120 commercial ships since February.

“Great day for Freedom of Navigation, as 3 months have passed since the launch of ASPIDES. Three months of multiple challenges and great achievements. ASPIDES continues its mission in full compliance with international law, to ensure maritime security and seaborne trade,” EUNAVFOR Aspides said.

On Feb. 19, the EU announced the commencement of EUNAVFOR Aspides, a military operation in the Red Sea to defend international marine traffic against Houthi attacks.

At the same time, the Philippines Department of Migrant Workers said on Sunday that 23 of its citizens who were aboard the oil ship assaulted by Houthi militia in the Red Sea on Saturday were safe.

“The DMW is closely coordinating with international maritime authorities, shipping companies, and local manning agencies on the status of ships with Filipino seafarers traversing high-risk areas and war-like zones in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden,” the DMW said in a statement carried by the official Philippine News Agency. 

For seven months, the Houthis have launched hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones, and drone boats against commercial and navy ships along international commerce lanes off Yemen, including the Red Sea.

The Houthis claim that their strikes are intended to push Israel to cease the war in Gaza and allow humanitarian supplies into the Palestinian territory. 

Three civilian sailors, including two Filipinos, were killed in March after the Houthis launched a missile at their ship in the Red Sea.

Many international shipping companies directed their ships to avoid the Red Sea and other passages off Yemen, opting for longer and more costly routes through Africa.

Meanwhile, Yemen human rights activists have said that a man held by the Houthis during the last seven years died as a result of abuse in Houthi imprisonment, making him the latest victim of torture within Houthis detention facilities. 

On Saturday, the Houthis told the family of Najeed Hassan Farea in Taiz through the Yemen Red Crescent that their son had died in their custody, but they did not explain how.

The Houthis abducted Farea in February 2017 after storming his village and home in the Al-Taziya district, preventing him from contacting his family and denying them information about where he was being detained.

Eshraq Al-Maqtari, a human rights activist in Taiz who reached Farea’s family, told Arab News that the Houthis cruelly tortured the man and that his family was stunned to hear of his death after years of information blackout since his detention.

“He was denied the right to communicate, to know his fate, and the right to healthcare, which appears to have caused his death,” she said, adding that since the start of the year, there have been three verified cases of prisoner fatalities as a result of torture in Houthi captivity.


10 years on, thousands forgotten in Syria desert camp

Updated 19 May 2024
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10 years on, thousands forgotten in Syria desert camp

  • Rukban camp was established in 2014 as desperate people fled Daesh and Syrian regime bombardment in hopes of crossing into Jordan

BEIRUT: In a no-man’s land on Syria’s border with Iraq and Jordan, thousands are stranded in an isolated camp, unable to return home after fleeing the regime and militants years ago.

When police defector Khaled arrived at Rukban, he had hoped to be back home within weeks — but eight years on, he is still stuck in the remote desert camp, sealed off from the rest of the country.

Damascus rarely lets aid in and neighboring countries have closed their borders to the area, which is protected from Syrian forces by a nearby US-led coalition base’s de-confliction zone.

“We are trapped between three countries,” said Khaled, 50, who only gave his first name due to security concerns.

“We can’t leave for (other areas of) Syria because we are wanted by the regime, and we can’t flee to Jordan or Iraq” because the borders are sealed, he added.

The camp was established in 2014, at the height of Syria’s ongoing war, as desperate people fled Daesh and regime bombardment in hopes of crossing into Jordan.

At its peak, it housed more than 100,000 people, but numbers have dwindled, especially after Jordan largely sealed its side of the border in 2016.

Many people have since returned to regime-held areas to escape hunger, poverty and a lack of medical care. The UN has also facilitated voluntary returns with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The last UN humanitarian convoy reached the camp in 2019, and the body described conditions there as “desperate” at the time.

Today, only about 8,000 residents remain, living in mud-brick houses, with food and basic supplies smuggled in at high prices.

Residents say even those meager supplies risk running dry as regime checkpoints blocked smuggling routes to the camp about a month ago.


Egyptian churches begin preparations to celebrate anniversary of Holy Family’s journey

Updated 19 May 2024
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Egyptian churches begin preparations to celebrate anniversary of Holy Family’s journey

CAIRO: Egypt’s Coptic community is preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Entry of the Holy Family into Egypt, starting on June 1.

Churches in the country have begun early preparations to welcome visitors, focusing on securing and preparing the sites along the journey the Holy Family is believed to have taken.

Robier El-Fares, an Egyptian Coptic researcher for Arab News, said: “The celebration of the journey of the Holy Family is a relatively new tradition that benefits religious tourism in Egypt. This comes after many years of neglecting the celebration.”

He added: “The route includes about 20 locations that represent the journey from Bethlehem in Palestine, fleeing the persecution of Herod who intended to kill Jesus Christ, and their subsequent travel to Egypt through plateaus and deserts.”

Father Augustinos Morris, priest of the Holy Family Church in Zeitoun, Cairo, for the Coptic Catholics, told Arab News: “Masses will be held at nine in the morning and six in the evening for all Copts who wish to participate. The readings are from Matthew 2, which discusses the flight into Egypt, and include a passage from the Old Testament in the Bible, amid the procedures followed in the holiday masses organised by the scout team.”

Father Matta Philip, priest of St. Mary’s Church in Maadi, Cairo, said: “The church is considered the first point of the Holy Family’s journey to Upper Egypt through a staircase, from there to a boat and then to Upper Egypt.”

He said: “Inside the Church of the Virgin Mary in Maadi, there is an icon depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, the altar vessels, and the Bible open to the verse — ‘Blessed be my people Egypt,’ — and a map of the family's route that starts from Arish and extends to the Monastery of Al-Muharraq.”

“Inside the church is the historic staircase that the Holy Family crossed, with an altar at its beginning where prayers are held,” he said. “From this staircase, the family headed to areas like Al-Bahnasa and Mount Al-Tair and other routes to the Monastery of Al-Muharraq, a journey that took about six months.”

Robier El-Fares said: “The known points of the Holy Family’s journey are 20, starting from Farma, located between the cities of Arish and Port Said, then to Tel Basta.”

“In Cairo, there are many points through which the Holy Family passed, including the area of Ain Shams, in addition to other areas in Maadi and Zeitoun, to start the points of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt), which are numerous including Gabal Al-Tair in Minya, and the Monastery of the Virgin Mary,” he said.