Internal dissent within The largely voluntary news network ProMED, which alerted the world to the earliest cases of Covid, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and SARS, has gone public and is threatening to shut down the internationally esteemed network unless external sponsors are found can become.
The battle for the future of the low-tech site, which also sends all content via a no-reply email list of 20,000 subscribers, was captured in dueling posts on its front page. At July 14, a post from ProMED’s Chief Content Officer, a veterinarian and infectious disease expert Jarod Hanson, announced that ProMED is running out of money. Hanson wrote that ProMED would shut down its RSS and Twitter feeds, limit access to its decades-long archives to the last 30 days, and introduce paid subscriptions because it was being undermined by data scraping and resale of its content, Hanson wrote.
Hanson is at the top Imprint of ProMED, and the post was signed with “the ProMED team”, giving the announced changes a sense of joint action. Turns out that wasn’t the case. Very early on August 3rd, an article appeared on the front page of the website entitled “Dear friends and readers of ProMED”. Signed by 21 of its volunteer and minimally paid moderators and editors, all prominent doctors and researchers, the open letter makes it clear that there was no consensus.
“Although the [July post] “The letter was signed by the ‘ProMED team’. We, the undersigned, would like to assure you that we had no prior knowledge,” the open letter reads. “It is with great sadness and regret that we, the undersigned, hereby cease our work for ProMED.”
The letter was removed from the site within hours, but the text had already been forwarded to email subscribers. (COPY FROM WIRED is here.) On Friday, signers of the open letter said they had been banned from the site’s internal dashboard. The site’s regular publishing rate slowed on Friday and Saturday, but appeared to pick up again on Sunday.
It might sound like a little row in some old corner of the internet – but for people in public health and medicine, ProMED’s silence is deeply troubling. It’s been essential daily reading for more than 20 years, since February 2003, when an email inquiry about rumors of diseases in Hong Kong’s vicinity arrived in chat rooms. As is customary on the site, this initial information was examined by several volunteer experts and compared to a separate message they found online. In its post, which is currently unavailable, ProMED reproduced both the email inquiry and the confirming information, along with a comment. This post was the first news published outside of China on the burgeoning epidemic of SARS viral pneumonia that swept the world in spring and summer – and was recognized by the regional government less than 24 hours later.
Using the same system of tips and local news sources, as well as careful evaluation, ProMED issued the first alerts on a number of other outbreaks, including two others caused by novel coronaviruses: MERS and Covid, which were discovered via two online articles published by media in China on December 30, 2019. Such warnings also led the World Health Organization to consider what it would accept as trustworthy reporting of the occurrence of epidemics. When the organization reformulated the International Health Regulations in the wake of SARS and committed member states to a code of conduct in the area of public health, it included “epidemic information from open sources” for the first time.
On the surface, the dispute between ProMED’s moderators and its leadership team – backed by the professional organization running the project – is the International Society for Infectious Diseases (ISID) – looks like yet another iteration of a discussion that’s been going on online for years: How to keep posting news when nobody wants to pay for it? While this is an ongoing issue, the issue posed by the disruption to ProMED operations is bigger than that of subscriptions. It’s more like this: How do you argue for the value of human-curated intelligence in a world that prefers to pour billions into AI?