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Hamsters help to show just how effective masks can be in stopping coronavirus transmission

Published May 20th, 2020 1:05PM EDT
coronavirus mask effectiveness
Image: ToKa74/Shutterstock

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  • A new study out of China used hamsters to test the effectiveness of face masks against coronavirus transmission.
  • Hamster cages were covered in surgical mask material to see how well it protects against the virus.
  • The results show that surgical masks are indeed a viable option if you’re hoping to protect yourself against infection or to prevent yourself from infecting others.
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Do masks protect you against the coronavirus? Depending on when you asked that question you might get a dozen different answers. Between conjecture from health experts, advice from doctors, and no shortage of studies claiming one thing or another, the best answer any of us have is “it depends.”

We know that some masks work much better than others, and there are many factors: The material the mask is made of, how well it fits the wearer, and environmental conditions, just to name a few. Now, a new study out of China suggests that yes, one type of mask definitely works as a barrier to prevent the spread of the airborne droplets that carry the virus, and we can thank hamsters for sacrificing their health to reach this conclusion.

The study was conducted by the University of Hong Kong, and while its methods may sound a bit odd, the results provide actionable information.

The researchers used hamsters in two separate cages. One group of hamsters was infected with COVID-19 while the other group was healthy. A fan installed on the cages ensured a flow of air and airborne particles between them. The team then conducted three experiments to test the effectiveness of surgical masks in preventing the transmission of the disease.

For starters, the left both cages uncovered. After a week, two-thirds of the healthy hamsters were testing positive for COVID-19. Bad news for those hamsters, but an important data point nonetheless.

In the second stage of the study, the researchers covered the cage of the infected hamsters with surgical mask material. Allowing another week to pass, the hamsters were again tested. This time, the rate of infection was much, much lower, at just 16.7%. That’s an incredible improvement and a big thumbs up for the idea of wearing surgical masks if you’re already sick.

The third stage of the study produced what might be the most surprising result of all. After covering only the cage of the healthy hamsters with the mask material, the rate of infection actually went up to 33%. This would seem to indicate that wearing a mask if you’re healthy is still a good idea, but isn’t as effective at preventing the spread of the disease as when an infected person wears one.

However, there’s another wrinkle to this study that is important to note. In both cases where the mask material was applied to one of the cages, the viral load of the newly-infected hamsters was lower than the infected group. A lower viral load means less of the virus in the body and potentially faster recovery.