In April, more than 1,000 vaccine experts gathered in Washington, D.C. for the first time since the pandemic began. Over four days, scientists, doctors and drugmakers pored over cutting-edge research and tackled some of the most pressing questions in the world of vaccines.
Talk of COVID-19 vaccines was, of course, unavoidable. But high on the agenda at the World Vaccine Congress was a vaccine for another mysterious illness that could strike at any moment: Disease X.
Disease X is not any particular virus, bacteria or other germ, but a term used as a stand-in for whatever pathogen will sweep the globe in the next pandemic. And there will indeed be a next pandemic, experts say.
For the vaccine experts, one thing is clear: No matter the form Disease X takes, they’ll be called on to get to work and develop the vaccine.
Such a task could feel insurmountable, given the vast unknowns. Should they focus on particular viruses now to get a head start? Should they look at pathogens that so far are found only in animals, but could someday spill over into humans and cause widespread disease, like COVID-19 did?
Big and important questions, yes, but simple enough for this group of vaccine researchers and developers. They know the science. They understand how viruses evolve and spread. They know how to make safe and effective vaccines against them.
But — as has become evident more than a year and a half into the U.S. vaccination campaign — one essential piece of information is missing: How to convince hesitant people to be vaccinated.
“There’s something about human behavior that we’re still not really understanding,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, U.S. director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, told the World Vaccine Congress.