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Disease X is the placeholder name used by the World Health Organization (WHO) to describe a potentially devastating hypothetical unknown pathogen that could lead to a worldwide pandemic. While the WHO coined the term in 2018, there is no scientific consensus on whether COVID-19 should be considered the first such "Disease X." In 2023, increased news coverage about Disease X led to discussions and memes beginning to appear online.
On February 7th, 2018, the World Health Organization released a document discussing the possible effects of a potential disease they called "Disease X." The WHO wrote:
“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”
In the years since the release of the document, some experts have asserted that COVID-19 met the standards to be considered the first Disease X, while others cite the Zika virus as the first Disease X. However, many scientists also consider the possibility that COVID-19 and similar pandemics in recent memory might only be mild versions of what Disease X could be.
While sporadic internet discussions about "Disease X" took place prior to 2022, discussions about the topic accelerated in 2023. This was largely due to a news article put out by U.K.-based newspaper Sky News discussing the work of a lab working to engineer vaccines to protect against the potential Disease X.
Many users on X expressed distrust towards the news story, saying that the idea of a lab working towards creating vaccines for a potential virus that doesn't yet exist was "suspicious." For example, X user @david_r_morgan quoted the news story on August 7th, 2023, gathering over 5,000 likes in a month (seen below).
The vaccines for “Disease X” are already being developed.
How can a vaccine be developed for a virus that doesn’t exist yet?
Because the virus is ready to go.
They are planning the next pandemic right in front of your face.
This is bio-terrorism. https://t.co/EWm45gtjNV
— David Morgan 🏴 #StayFree (@david_r_morgan) August 8, 2023
Other internet users joked about Disease X being Elon Musk or its first victim being Twitter, given that the social media platform was renamed X around the same time. X users @FormulaStoo and @aintscarylarry posted such jokes on August 7th, gathering over 2,000 and 1,000 likes each (seen below).
On August 7th, 2023, X user @LKP_KYjelly posted a meme about Disease X, gathering over 500 likes in a month (seen below).
Disease X waiting to be unleashed on the world pic.twitter.com/O4z6lwFjd8
— LKP_KyJelly (@LKP_KYjelly) August 7, 2023
 National Library of Medicine – Disease X: A hidden but inevitable creeping danger