Surgical masks are limited in their ability to block pathogen spread. John Gomez/Shutterstock

Rachael Funnell 17 Feb 2020, 17:01

As the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV, now officially called SARS-CoV-2, continues to top headlines, the demand for face masks has sky-rocketed, causing some US and online retailers to run out of stock. Cases are continuing to pop up across the globe and as fears mount, more and more people are turning to masks in an effort to keep themselves safe, but can any of these masks prevent coronavirus?

The coronavirus family are a group of airborne viruses that are transmitted in a similar way to the flu. You can inhale virus particles after someone who has contracted coronavirus coughs or sneezes, or a sick person may leave traces of the virus on surfaces, which for SARS-CoV-2 we know can survive for up to nine days – a long time compared to most strains of flu that survive for around 24 hours.

The type of mask seen in the above photo is a standard-issue surgical face mask used by medical practitioners during surgery to prevent the transmission of bacteria and viruses while patients are on the operating table. These are effective at blocking large particles and droplets from transferring through the mask but can’t prevent small virus particles from getting around the edges or landing on the mask. Particles sitting on the mask pose a problem when users take it off, as once the SARS-CoV-2 particles are on your hands, you’re at risk if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, or leave traces of the virus on objects and surfaces.

Another kind of mask is the N95 respirator, which is a fitted apparatus designed to block particles by filtering the air as it passes through the mask. When fitted properly, the N95 classification means that the respirator is capable of filtering out at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) particles. These respirators, however, aren’t effective for children or people with facial hair, and even those properly fitted can’t eliminate the risk of infection entirely. These masks can also get uncomfortably warm and the filtering processes can be so efficient it makes it difficult to breathe. 

While neither option appears to be completely foolproof, residents in China are being instructed to wear masks as there’s such a high incidence of the virus in some areas. Even surgical masks can go some way in preventing individuals who do not yet know that they’re sick from spreading virus particles while in public spaces. There have even been reports via Twitter that in some parts of China, people are making bespoke masks to keep their cats safe.

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In areas such as America, where there are still so few reported cases, face masks will achieve little. The best advice is to keep on top of hygiene practices such as regularly washing hands, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and sneezing or coughing into a tissue before disposing of it. If you find yourself without a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow to prevent getting the virus on your hands.

If you’re still keen to Bane your way through the ongoing crisis, there’s a company putting the “face” in face masks as they launch Face ID compatible respirator masks for those who simply don’t have time to key in their password. You can even opt to have the lower segment of your face captured in a smile for those days when you just can’t but unfortunately you have to. 

And if you want to go one further, in what might be the greatest example of “not all heroes wear capes”, a dedicated daughter in China whose father was unwell donned an inflatable giraffe costume in lieu of a face mask as she headed to the dispensary to collect his medications.

 

There’s hope that this devastating virus will come to an end as a London-based team reported last week that they were testing a vaccine on mice. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories has released images so you can see what SARS-CoV-2 actually looks like.

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