By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 03/02/2020


Lately, my morning routine includes opening up our work email and checking the latest World Health Organization coronavirus situation report.

It’s sobering to see the numbers increasing so rapidly – about 2,500 new confirmed cases every day and about 45 reported deaths. But I’m also reminded of the stark contrast between this outbreak and previous situations in terms of how rapidly information reaches us.

SARS

I was in my first year of university during the 2003 SARS outbreak and had very little information available to me. This was pre mobile data-enabled cell phones*, I didn’t have a laptop so used the university computer labs when I needed to work on assignments and Stuff was a website that was still only updated a few times a day – if that. Being an introvert meant I rarely watched the TV news in the residence hall common room and newspapers weren’t readily available for broke first-year students.

Probably my biggest source of information was via the university’s email system – with updates for students returning from affected countries – and I don’t recall being terribly concerned about whatever was going on. I did, however, have an online friend who lived in Singapore and sent occasional updates about having to go through thermal screening on the way into her exam rooms. So I knew it was a big deal, but all up I was pretty isolated from what was happening.

Compare that to 2020, when our social media feeds are full of the latest coronavirus updates, our phones are heaving with push notifications, and you can’t even read an update on last night’s Bachelorette without seeing a breaking news banner about the viral outbreak.

Infodemic

In its latest update, the WHO has called the situation an ‘infodemic’. “An over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” In response to this situation, the WHO technical risk communication and social media teams have been working to “track and respond to myths and rumours”.

“Through its headquarters in Geneva, its six regional offices and its partners, the Organization is working 24 hours a day to identify the most prevalent rumours that can potentially harm the public’s health, such as false prevention measures or cures. These myths are then refuted with evidence-based information.”

I’ll refer you to The Debunking Handbook to decide whether simply refuting myths is likely to be useful.

And what about on social media? Credit where it’s due, if you search ‘coronavirus’ on Twitter you’ll be offered links to resources from the Ministry of Health and WHO:

Twitter search, 3 February 2020

It would be excellent to know what Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are doing to prevent the spread of false and potentially harmful information.

Speedy publication and preprints

Another fascinating aspect of the current outbreak is the speed at which studies are being published online and made available open access. For instance, at the time of writing The Lancet has already published five research articles on aspects of the virus and has created an open access resource centre.

However, this speed can often be at the expense of accuracy especially when we are all hungry for new information. One of those Lancet papers, which looked at 99 cases of 2019-nCoV in one hospital, was incorrectly translated into providing a mortality rate, despite the article saying no such thing. I suspect we will see many more of these mistakes as journalists try to get their heads around the issue, especially when confronting terms they may never have encountered before. Heck, even I was sucked in by the possibility the virus had jumped to humans via snakes.

The other side of the need for quick publication is that preprint papers are appearing at quite the rate on bioRxiv and medRxiv. If you’re not familiar with them, preprints are drafts of research papers that have yet to undergo peer review. One reason for researchers putting their unpublished work on these open access databases is to stake a claim on the information, i.e. be the first to publish it. But it also enables a kind of pre-peer review, where others in the research community can assess the validity of the findings and – hopefully – help improve the research for the greater benefit. This is especially critical with an unfolding situation such as this novel coronavirus.

Preprints are a curly issue that journal publishers, journalists and the international network of Science Media Centres are still figuring out. Generally, we advise journalists to use caution when reporting on preprint articles, but it’s understandable that in the face of this outbreak the level of public interest is sufficiently high to justify some reporting.

In fact, bioRxiv explicitly cautions against regarding preprints as conclusive or news reporting treating them as “established information”:

We can definitely expect this information tidal wave to continue over the coming weeks, and probably months. It’s on us, the media, and health organisations to do our due diligence to ensure we are sharing accurate information and I have to commend the Ministry of Health for its regular and informative press conferences over the past week. At the speed research is being done, I have no doubt we’ll have more answers in the very near future, but in the meantime let’s take care with what we share, and please remember to wash your hands.

 

*At least, for university students living in New Zealand.