Study of hamsters concludes face masks reduce spread of coronavirus by 75 percent. Huh?

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Researchers say they have discovered that wearing a surgical-type mask can dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19, though other experts still aren’t so sure masks are all that effective.

According to the new study, released Sunday by a team of scientists in Hong Kong, the rate of non-contact transmission via respiratory droplets or particles in the air fell by as much as 75 percent when masks were worn.

“The findings implied to the world and the public is that the effectiveness of mask-wearing against the coronavirus pandemic is huge,” said Dr. Yuen Kwok-yung, a top microbiologist with  Hong Kong University who assisted in the discovery of the SARA virus in 2003, Fox News reports.

The study findings come as other experts, world leaders, and global groups like the World Health Organization have panned the widespread use of masks to mitigate coronavirus contagion as ineffective outside of medical environments like hospitals.

Also, some may question the methodology of the study, which involved hamsters in cages.

Described as the first study of its kind, researchers placed the animals in two cages — one group of healthy hamsters and another group infected with coronavirus. Scientists put them in three different scenarios to judge the effectiveness of facial coverings.

In one, mask barriers were put on cages only containing infected hamsters, while another placed barriers over the healthy animals and a third used no barriers at all. In each scenario, a fan was used to mimic air movement and allow for infectious droplets to be spread.

Researchers say they discovered that when the barrier was put over the cage containing the infected animals, the transmission infection rate fell to roughly 15 percent. The rate climbed to 33 percent, however, when the mask barrier was used to cover up the cage of the healthy animals.

With no mask barriers on either cage, however, the team said about two-thirds of the healthy hamsters were infected within a week. Researchers also said they discovered when hamsters were infected even with the mask barrier in place, their bodies contained less of the virus when compared to animals infected without the barrier.

“In our hamster experiment, it shows very clearly that if infected hamsters or humans — especially asymptomatic or symptomatic ones — put on masks, they actually protect other people,” Yuen said in a Sunday news conference, Sky News reported.

“That’s the strongest result we showed here. Transmission can be reduced by 50 percent when surgical masks are used, especially when masks are worn by infected individuals,” Yuen added.

“Universal masking at 80 [percent] adoption flattens the curve significantly more than maintaining a strict lockdown,” the team wrote, noting that until a vaccine is developed, social distancing and mask-wearing remains the most practical mitigation methods.

Other experts, however, are less certain that mask usage is effective enough to mandate their use outside of a medical environment.

William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of health policy and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, notes that while masks are effective in healthcare settings, they can be less so in the general public because most people don’t know how to wear masks properly.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend widespread use of face masks to mitigate coronavirus.

In addition, the Swedish government has recently declared that wearing face masks in public does little to protect you against contracting COVID-19.

“Face masks in public spaces do not provide any greater protection to the population,” Johan Carlson from the Swedish Public Health Agency Folkhälsomyndigheten told a May 13 press conference.

Swedish media outlet The Local notes further

Swedish health authorities argue that keeping a distance, washing your hands, not touching your face, and staying at home if you experience any symptoms are still the best ways to halt the spread of the coronavirus. There is a concern that wearing face masks would make people follow these guidelines less strictly.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said during the same news conference, “There is a risk of a false sense of security, that you believe that you can’t be infected if you wear a face mask.

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Jon Dougherty

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