What if the mask makes us immune to Covid-19? A risky new theory proposes that its effectiveness goes beyond filtering virus particles.
Face masks became mainstays to control the pandemic in early April, after growing scientific evidence demonstrated their effectiveness in reducing infections in Asian countries that experienced the first waves of Covid-19.
Since then, WHO and other health institutions recommended its widespread use in public space.
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Today we know that face masks are efficient for prevent sick people (especially asymptomatic ones) expel the tiny droplets that contain the virus when they speak, sneeze or cough. Also that can be effective for healthy people to filter out some of these particles in the air they breathe.
However, a new theory suggests that the protection offered by masks goes far beyond filtering out virus particles.
Scientists at the University of California believe that the universal use of the mask can function as a rudimentary form of immunization known as variolation:
“It is possible that one of the pillars of controlling the Covid-19 pandemic, universal facial masking, can help reduce the severity of the disease and ensure that a higher proportion of new infections are asymptomatic.
If this hypothesis is confirmed, the universal use of masks could become a form of ‘variolation’ that would generate immunity and, therefore, slow the spread of the virus in the United States and other places, while we wait for a vaccine ”, they explained in a scientific commentary published September 8 in The New England Journal of Medicine.
What is variolation?
Before the first vaccine in history that managed to elicit the body’s immune response to smallpox in 1796, variolation became a risky way to immunize a group of people.
This technique consisted of rubbing some scabs or pus from smallpox on the skin of a healthy person, which caused a much more benign disease than that produced by a common contagion:
“Variolation was a process by which people susceptible to smallpox were inoculated with material extracted from the gallbladder of a person with smallpox, with the intention of causing a mild infection and consequent immunity. The variolation was practiced only until the introduction of the vaccine against the variola virus, which finally eradicated smallpox ”, explain the authors of the scientific comment.
How would mask immunity work?
The principle that made the variolation is simple and part of the assumption that the entry of a virus into the body in small concentrations, equals one low viral load leading to less serious illness and even asymptomatic.
If the relationship between the volume of exposure to the virus is proportional to the severity of the disease – previously demonstrated in other viral diseases and in experiments with hamsters in the case of SARS-CoV-2 – then the use of masks can contribute two types of protection:
First, decreases the chance of infection and in the event that the disease occurs, its manifestation would be milder or asymptomatica, compared to the ‘typical’ contagion of Covid-19.
An experiment with Syrian hamsters that recreated the use of masks obtained observational evidence for this hypothesis: “With simulated masking, hamsters were less likely to become infected and, if infected, were asymptomatic or had milder symptoms than hamsters without masks” , explain the authors of this theory.
Although more studies are still needed to prove the relationship between the rate of asymptomatic infection in areas where the use of masks is higher, there is no doubt that the widespread adoption of masks is necessary to stop the transmission of the virus.
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