Science

Removing the pump handle: Stewarding data at times of public health emergency

John Snow memorial

There is a saying, incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, that states: “History never repeat itself but it rhymes”. Seeking to understand the implications of the current crisis for the effective use of data, I’ve drawn on the nineteenth-century cholera outbreak in London’s Soho to identify some “rhyming patterns” that might inform our approaches to data use and governance at this time of public health crisis.

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The many definitions of a Covid-19 death toll

Empty street, Leeds

This note considers the different measures of the death toll in the UK due directly or indirectly to the Covid-19 epidemic. However, it ignores some important issues that contribute to differences between measures. For example, the official figures are published with differing frequencies and geographic coverage, there are conflicts between dates of death and dates of registration, and there are definitional and legal differences between the four countries of the UK. These are important but will make little difference in the final reckoning beyond 2020.

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Science in the face of Covid-19: faster, better, stronger?

workers in hazard suits

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. A novel virus, SARS-CoV-2, causing coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) has brought social life and most of the world economy to an abrupt halt, but health care workers and researchers have been kept extremely busy.

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Yellow fever experiments, and early informed consent

consent form

In the June 2020 issue of Significance, we tell the story of medical researchers in the late nineteenth century, some of whom went to extreme lengths to identify the transmission mechanism of yellow fever, a killer disease. In our article, we write that: "The experiments run by the Yellow Fever Board" - the group of scientists established in 1900 to investigate the cause of the disease - "were in many ways the functional equivalent of clinical trials", but that compared to contemporary clinical trials, "the design of the experiments, particularly the early ones, was crude". However, with respect to informed consent, their practices were, by the standards of the time, quite advanced, as we will explain here. 

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