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Attendees gather at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2024. (AP) Attendees gather at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2024. (AP)

Attendees gather at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2024. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone January 18, 2024

Disease X isn’t being planned at World Economic Forum meeting

If Your Time is short

  • Disease X, a term used for several years by the World Health Organization, refers to a hypothetical deadly pathogen that could lead to a global pandemic.

  • World leaders and scientists have been discussing ways to better prepare for and respond to such an unknown disease before it emerges. They are not planning a new pandemic.

  • Learn more about PolitiFact’s fact-checking process and rating system.

A World Economic Forum panel discussion about a so-called "Disease X" has revived social media conspiracy theories that a new pandemic is being planned.

"Another potential vaccine and disease is apparently coming. Called Disease X," read a caption on a Jan. 11 Instagram post.

It shared an image from a World Economic Forum post that described a Jan. 17 session about preparing healthcare systems for an unknown Disease X at the organization’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

A Jan. 17 Instagram post about the event had an image with words that said, "If we just call it X no one will notice." The post’s caption said, "Remember… they always tell us what’s coming," with a winking emoji. The post was removed before this story published. 

These posts were flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

We found other recent posts making similar claims about Disease X, a term adopted by the World Health Organization several years ago as a placeholder for an unknown disease that could emerge. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones baselessly said in a video that Disease X is a laboratory-created virus. 

We debunked a similar claim in August that said Disease X was "the next plandemic," a reference to a 2020 documentary of false conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. And another false claim this week tied a potential measles exposure at two Washington, D.C.-area airports to Disease X.

The claims both mislead about what Disease X means and baselessly imply that world leaders are meeting in Davos to concoct a new pandemic.

Featured Fact-check

The World Economic Forum panel discussion included Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the inspector general of the World Health Organization, and other global health care leaders from both public and private organizations.

Tedros sought to clarify what Disease X is because, he said, it was "attracting a lot of attention" on social media.

Preparing for Disease X discussion at the World Economic Forum, Jan. 17, 2024

Disease X is not an actual disease, but a hypothetical one. It’s a term the WHO said "represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease." 

Disease X is not a new term either, said Tedros. The WHO since 2015 has annually listed pathogens to prioritize for research and development, and first added Disease X to it in 2018.

Tedros cited the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of how preparation for an unknown disease could have helped. Many people died because of overwhelmed hospitals and lack of oxygen supplies, he said.

"So how can you have a (health) system that can expand when the need comes?" he said. "You don’t need to know the disease."

Social media posts claimed that a World Economic Forum panel discussion about Disease X is evidence that global leaders are planning a new pandemic. But the posts are wrong about Disease X, a term coined to refer to a hypothetical pathogen that could start a global pandemic. 

Scientists have been studying ways to better prepare and respond to the sudden rise of a deadly pathogen, but it doesn’t mean one is being planned. We rate the claims False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, Jan. 11, 2024 (archived)

World Economic Forum, Preparing for Disease X, Jan. 17, 2024

World Economic Forum, Preparing for Disease X archived Jan. 11

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, X post, Jan. 17, 2024

World Health Organization, Accelerating R&D processes, accessed Jan. 17, 2023

World Health Organization, WHO to identify pathogens that could cause future outbreaks and pandemics, Nov. 21, 2022

World Health Organization, Prioritizing diseases for research and development in emergency contexts, accessed Jan. 17, 2023

World Health Organization, Research and Development (R&D) Roadmaps, accessed Jan. 17, 2023

PolitiFact, Conspiracy theorists falsely claim ‘Disease X’ is the next ‘plandemic’, Aug. 7, 2023

The Guardian, Facility in Porton Down, Wiltshire will allow vaccines to be developed for future pandemic pathogens, Aug. 6, 2023

CEPI, 100 Days, accessed Jan. 18, 2023

BBC, Porton Down: Can this laboratory help stop the next pandemic?, Aug. 6, 2023

Sky News, 'Disease X': UK scientists begin developing vaccines against new pandemic, Aug. 7, 2023

The Hill, What is Disease X? The hypothetical virus world leaders are preparing for, Jan. 17, 2024

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Disease X isn’t being planned at World Economic Forum meeting

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