New Research On Masks Show They Can Act Like A Vaccine

This is the strongest evidence yet that masks really work

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

As a healthcare professional who has actually taken care of patients afflicted with COVID-19 on the front lines, it has been distressing to me to see the active campaign against masks. Yes, this would not be the first time Americans have resisted masks in the midst of a pandemic. At the same time, I would have hoped that we would know better 100 years later. This is especially true since the latest research shows that masks really do work and are very effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Researchers out of the University of California San Francisco looked at virologic, ecologic, and epidemiologic evidence in the literature. They found that wearing masks reduces what’s called the “viral inoculum,” which is the amount of virus that one can potentially inhale into his or her respiratory system.

The higher the viral inoculum, the more likely someone will get infected and get severe illness. The lower the inoculum, the less likely someone will get the disease, because there are less viruses in that inoculum. What’s more, while masks do reduce droplets and particles that get into your mouth and nose, it is not 100%.

So, even if one does get an infection with a low viral inoculum, it is much more likely to be very mild or totally asymptomatic infection. And, barring a weak immune system, the body will generate an immune response to the virus and hopefully confer some sort of immunity to the virus. It may not be long-lasting, as some research has borne out, but there is a secondary immune response, and hopefully this response will be intact and will help protect the individual from re-exposure.

And so, in essence, masks can act like a “poor man’s vaccine,” as the researchers in the paper called it, while we wait for a real vaccine that is safe and effective to be developed. Yet, how does this work?

Well, a vaccine is an injection of either a weakened or dead pathogen or a critical protein of the pathogen. This injection stimulates an immune response to the pathogen, one that is hopefully long-lasting. It’s a way to get immunity without having to suffer the devastating effects of the illness itself.

In the case with masks, if you get a very small viral inoculum of SARS-CoV-2 that causes asymptomatic infection, your body generates an immune response without suffering the devastating effects of full blown COVID-19, in other words, similar to what a vaccine does.

This is the strongest evidence yet that masks are an effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. To me, there really is no debate. There should be no one who derides or harasses someone who is wearing a mask.

Yes, the CDC was wrong not to recommend people wearing masks early on in the pandemic. I myself regret having retweeted this tweet from the CDC back in February:

We know better now. We understand better now. The data are very clear: wearing masks is an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is the very least we can do, and it is about respect and yes…freedom.

NY Times featured Pulmonary and Critical Care Specialist | Physician Leader | Author and Blogger | His latest book is “Code Blue,” a medical thriller.

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