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Could your mask be a COVID-19 vaccine? There’s a new scientific theory

It’s possible your mask could give you enough exposure to the coronavirus that you become immune.

SHARE Could your mask be a COVID-19 vaccine? There’s a new scientific theory
A Walmart employee holds a bag of face masks.

A Walmart employee holds a bag of face masks outside of the store in Orem on Monday, July 20, 2020, the first day the retail giant required all customers to wear a face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

A team of researchers have a new theory about the novel coronavirus — your mask might be enough to immunize you against the virus, according to The New York Times.

What’s going on?

The theory — and yes, it’s just a theory published in a commentary piece in New England Journal of Medicine — is based off a long-standing concept of “variolation.”

“Variolation” refers to exposure of a pathogen to create an immune response. It was originally attempted with smallpox before it became less accepted. But the idea “paved the way for the rise of modern vaccines,” according to The New York Times.

Masked exposures are no substitute for a bona fide vaccine. But data from animals infected with the coronavirus, as well as insights gleaned from other diseases, suggest that masks, by cutting down on the number of viruses that encounter a person’s airway, might reduce the wearer’s chances of getting sick. And if a small number of pathogens still slip through, the researchers argue, these might prompt the body to produce immune cells that can remember the virus and stick around to fight it off again.

“You can have this virus but be asymptomatic. So if you can drive up rates of asymptomatic infection with masks, maybe that becomes a way to variolate the population,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, according to The New York Times.

  • But this doesn’t mean people should wear a mask to catch the virus.
  • The theory can’t be proven until there are clinical trials that compared outcomes for those who wore a mask and those who didn’t, which is hard to develop in its own right.

The researchers said in the New England Journal of Medicine commentary that it’s important for people to drive down transmission as much as they can to stop the spread.

  • “Ultimately, combating the pandemic will involve driving down both transmission rates and severity of disease. Increasing evidence suggests that population-wide facial masking might benefit both components of the response.