The new rapid is not the old rapid

One observation we can make from this ongoing pandemic is that the new rapid is not the old rapid. The new rapid is, and has to be, faster than ever before.

Use of real-time data is bigger and bolder, like never before. Public health data showing us national levels of new cases and deaths are produced and immediately gathered and presented into various portals and dashboards around the world, linking and comparing global data. It is quite an astonishing achievement this is now not really considered an astonishing achievement.

And now, even minutes are perceived to matter. The UK Department of Health and Social Care promises daily updates at 2pm. When the new information is pushed into our eyes at 2:25pm, we’re wondering what the hold-up was. And if the numbers of deaths are even later to arrive, maybe about 4pm, then the conspiracy theorists (who are incredibly adaptable to circumstance) are having a field day, before quietly forgetting their social media posts from the last 90 minutes and moving onto the next idea.

Social media has been working at this kind of speed for years. ‘Twenty-four hours is a long time in politics’, as the old saying goes. These days, 24 minutes might be a long time in the endless cycle of news and views. Pandemic response in the 21st century has responded accordingly. This does of course mean some bad information gets pushed into the public domain, but the intensity of ‘post-publication peer-review’ means that, in my opinion, the bad information is overwhelmed by the good and the useful data.

As people self-isolate and social distance themselves at home, then same-day and next-day deliveries become ever more important. Gone are the days when you’d order from a catatlogue and be fine with your good arriving ‘within 28 days’. As it seems, is the desire for in-store shopping. The urgency by which people are purchasing their groceries is, in some cases, as extreme as it is pathetic. And it is always the most vulnerable people, who cannot sprint towards the toilet roll section the moment the supermarket doors open, who suffer.

I added this comment in, just before putting the blog online — my wife muttered in the background we need more Pritt-sticks (glue sticks for kids). In 90 seconds, I’d placed the order and they’ll be here tomorrow. The new rapid.

Back in the health and medical field, scientific journals need to rapidly adapt to this ‘new normal’. They always have done ‘rapid review and publication’, but in the plodding world of academia, that would typically mean ‘weeks rather than months’, and us academics are happy with that. We’ve submitted the paper, we can let our manuscript pursue its own sedate way through the system. Pre-prints are now everywhere (see caveats on new information up above). But journals have to adapt and internally review incoming COVID manuscripts in hours, maybe a day or two, before getting peer-reviews complete in days, maybe a week or so. If they do not, then the evidence base may have moved on prior to publication. This is their, and our, new world. Expectations are different.

How rapid can we get? Well, the old adage that the fish I caught was this big? * stretches out arms wide for illustrative purposes * . Not a proud boast now.

21st century, how fast are you? * sweeping arm movement at great speed, knocking over the cup of tea and accidentally bopping a nearby onlooker on the head *

That fast. And that’s fast.

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Michael G Head

I’m am a researcher focusing on infectious diseases, I have a background in public health research and epidemiology.