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Inside out

Back page gossip from the 5 March issue of Research Europe

Words are weapons

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19 has killed thousands of people, hospitalised many more and brought enormous disruption to lives and livelihoods around the world.

It has been variously a tragedy, a heavy health and economic burden, an indictment of insufficient funding for public health and a testament to global cooperation. It has also provided a case study of evidence-based communication.

The World Health Organization took its time declaring the outbreak a ‘public health emergency of international concern’, attracting praise and opprobrium in about equal measure. It then refused to leap to label the outbreak a ‘pandemic’, as the number of confirmed cases soared past 90,000 in 72 countries, and showed no signs of slowing as Research Europe went to press.

“Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on 24 February.

“Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear,” he said, adding: “This is not the time to focus on what word we use.” Research Europe counts on its readers to bear our context in mind.

The WHO also warned of an ‘infodemic’ around the outbreak, which it described as “an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance”.

It said it was “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 included that eating garlic could prevent infection, and that use of hand dryers could kill the virus.

The word ‘infodemic’ appears to have been coined by health analyst David Rothkopf in 2003. Writing in The Washington Post following the outbreak of the SARS virus, Rothkopf suggested that an “information epidemic” had “implications that are far greater than [SARS] itself”.

If left unchecked, he said, infodemics “could usher in a period of…serious new problems for policymakers dealing with challenges from public health to international affairs”. 

Seventeen years on, his warning looks more prescient by the day.

Silence is not golden

In this issue, Research Europe brings you responses from the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to reported shortcomings in their inspections of facilities that use animals for research. Sadly, the governments of Cyprus, Malta and Portugal did not respond to requests for comment. Given the importance of the subject, this is a shame. We hope someone in these shy governments, or with sway over them, will read this issue and help to bring about responses. Our inbox remains open.