Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

WHO-backed study shows face masks can reduce coronavirus spread significantly

Published Jun 3rd, 2020 7:35PM EDT
Coronavirus Face Masks
Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP/Shutterstock
  • Face masks of any kind can reduce coronavirus transmission, a new study indicates.
  • Commissioned by the World Health Organization, the research also says that eyewear and keeping a distance of at least three feet from other people can reduce the risk of infection and transmission.
  • The use of personal protective equipment combined with social distancing can increase protection against COVID-19 and help to flatten the curve.

We may not have COVID-19 treatments to prevent complications and reduce the risk of transmission, but there are plenty of things we can do to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Whether it’s mandated or not, social distancing can limit the spread of droplets that can contain the pathogen. Face masks can also offer protection, even ones you make yourself. Add in frequent hand washing, and you’re doing everything in your power to protect yourself and others. Opening up our cities and returning to some sense of normalcy is possible.

These simple measures, combined with widespread testing and contact tracing, can also prevent future outbreaks from engulfing entire countries. If you’re still apprehensive about personal protective material like face masks, you should know that they work, and new research proves that point.

There’s no surefire way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and no PPE will be completely effective at blocking the virus. But wearing face masks and eyeglasses could be very helpful, according to research backed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Published in The Lancet (via LiveScience), the paper details the efficacy of various kinds of PPE, as observed in existing research.

The scientists looked at existing COVID-19 data as well as research for SARS and MERS, previous coronaviruses that wreaked havoc on the planet. The researchers looked at information from 44 studies involving 25,000 people in 16 countries. The studies analyzed the effects of social distancing, face masks, and eye protection on virus transmission.

The WHO-backed study revealed that something as simple as keeping at least three feet between two people lowered the chances of transmission by 82%. At least three feet of distance equaled to a 3% chance of getting the coronavirus. The risk was reduced by half for every extra three feet of distance. Meanwhile, the risk of infection rose to 13% for distances of less than three feet.

Wearing face masks lowers the risk of infection or transmission to 3% compared to 17% when you don’t have anything on your face. That’s a risk reduction of more than 80%.

N95 respirators, the masks advised for medical use, proved to be even more effective at blocking transmission. The N95 masks are 96% effective at protecting people compared to 77% for surgical masks and other types of covers. Eyewear also protects against infection, according to the study. Eye protection drops the chance of transmission to 6% from 16% without any sort of glasses or protection.

“Our findings are the first to synthesize all direct information on COVID-19, SARS, and MERS, and provide the currently best available evidence on the optimum use of these common and simple interventions to help ‘flatten the curve,'” senior author Holger Schünemann said in a statement.

“For health care workers on COVID-19 wards, a [N95] respirator should be the minimum standard of care,” University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute in Australia professor Raina MacIntyre and colleagues said in a commentary accompanying the study. They also said the study “supports universal face mask use, because masks were equally effective in both health care and community settings.”

As with all new coronavirus research, more data might be required to better quantify the kind of protection PPE, including face masks, can offer. Anecdotal evidence clearly indicates that face masks are efficient, but the study was observational, which means it didn’t compare two different groups of people — one wearing PPE and one without. Two randomized controlled trials for face masks are underway in Canada and Denmark.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.