Some scientists think wearing a mask could build immunity to coronavirus

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It feels like every day, there is vaccine news that takes us on a gut-wrenching rollercoaster of vaccine hopefulness. Will we have one? Will it work? Will the people who need it most have access to it? Will people even take it? All these unanswered questions are beginning to make some of us wary. But scientists have a new, kind of abstract, idea: What if masks can act as a vaccine?

The theory, which is yet clinically unproven, was published as an op-ed by two epidemiologists in the New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday. The concept is pretty simple: that masks may offer enough protection to dilute our exposure to COVID-19 in a way that allows our bodies to develop an immunity to the small amounts of the virus we are exposed to. It’s based on the concept of variolation — that being infected with a small amount of a harmful virus can inoculate you.

Variolation isn’t actually a new idea. It’s how whole populations protected themselves from smallpox in the 18th century, long before there was a vaccine, or even the concept of vaccination. Variolation, unfortunately, is definitely not a risk-free approach. Using the smallpox example, thousands of people died during the variolation process and it sometimes caused the epidemic to worsen. “I’m still pretty skeptical,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told the New York Times, but added that she thinks the theory has some merits.

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In the case of COVID-19, the theory is that if we all wear masks, but are exposed to small amounts of the novel coronavirus, many people will become asymptomatic carriers and develop immunity. There’s a few hitches. Using variolation as a method of creating immunity presumes that being exposed to smaller amounts of the virus will lead to less serious illness and that mild cases of COVID-19 will create lasting protection, the New York Times reported. We can’t be sure of either of these, as research into the disease is still new.

“Universal masking could become a form of ‘variolation’ that would generate immunity and thereby slow the spread of the virus in the United States and elsewhere, as we await a vaccine,” Monica Gandhi and George Rutherford, the two epidemiologists behind the theory, wrote in their report. But Gandhi stressed in an interview with the Times that this idea is, at this point, theoretical and should not be misconstrued as data that’s been formally tested.

Other infectious disease experts agree that people shouldn’t let up on their vigilance about distancing or hygiene. With the pandemic still in full effect, this is no time to get complacent. “We still want people to follow all the other prevention strategies,” Saskia Popescu, an Arizona-based infectious disease epidemiologist, told the Times.

So, yes, this could be an inexpensive and easily implemented approach to creating immunity, but it’s not a sure bet. If nothing else, this is just another reason why we should all be wearing our masks.