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.
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.
The World Health Organization asks governments to consider two questions when carrying out risk assessments for adjusting public health and social measures in the context of Covid-19. First, is the public health system able to identify, isolate, and care for cases and quarantine contacts? Second, is the public health system able to rapidly detect a resurgence of cases?
The UK government provides an update during their daily briefing of the number of people that have died in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19. But what do these numbers really mean?
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was an early and persistent advocate of the best means to prevent the spread of infectious diseases – frequent handwashing – calling for it in her 1860 Notes on Nursing and adding details on the use of disinfectants in later writing. She was a pioneer of evidence-based health care, from the lessons learned from the high mortality rates of the Crimean War (1854–56). NHS England, in giving the name “Nightingale Hospital” to seven temporary hospitals for Covid-19 patients, is recognizing Nightingale’s relevance to combatting infectious diseases.