With the start of a new school year approaching, many are returning to the mask debate surrounding COVID-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2.
Social media feeds are filled with YouTube videos, Tik Toks, and opinion articles from major news sources claiming masks are great and they work, or masks are useless and COVID-19 isn’t something to worry about.
What is missing on social media feed is science.
A recent viral video is one from Dr. Dan Stock out of Indiana. He is a family medicine physician who spoke to his local school board. Many in the online community are circulating his words. Stock made comments that are misleading. I will outline them below.
Stock states that SARS-CoV-2 is spread by aerosols and that those aerosols cannot be stopped by masks.
When infected with the virus, humans do release virus within airborne droplets, think things you release when you cough or sneeze, as well as aerosols, ultra-tiny particles that can pass through many things. Masks are not able to stop the ultra-tiny particles; masks can stop airborne droplets (S.E. Eikenberry et al./Infectious Disease Modelling 5 (2020) 293e308294).
Scientists have been advocating for mask-wearing to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 when combined with social distancing. This is akin to what occurs in operating rooms. Medical practitioners use surgical masks to reduce the transmission to the patients they are operating on.
It has worked in the operating room for centuries.
Stock then states that the “natural history of respiratory viruses is to wait for the immune system to get sick through the winter or become deranged.” Respiratory viruses are always circulating. He is correct.
Where he is completely incorrect is that these viruses wait for the immune system to get sick to cause disease and that this happens in winter. The reason more individuals get sick in winter is that humans spend more time indoors closer together in colder months. We don’t open the windows in winter and used forced-air heating in some places to keep warm.
Human behavior brings us closer together in winter. This allows for us to cough and sneeze on each other.
Without a mask on, we are closer together inside and the respiratory viruses can spread more easily. He later states that “a (COVID-19) breakout in the middle of summer when respiratory viruses don’t do that.” Again, he is correct. The respiratory viruses he is comparing SARS-CoV-2 against were RSV, Respiratory Syncytia Virus, the common cold (which is caused by more than 270 different viruses, not just one virus) and Influenza.
These infections do increase in the winter and not in the summer for the reasons outlined above. In addition, these viruses are not as easily passed from person to person because they have a higher infectious dose. This means that you must get more of the virus in your body to get sick. SARS-CoV-2 is very easily transmitted from person to person and has a much lower infectious dose. (Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 72, Issue 5, 1 March 2021, Pages e154–e157, https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa1704).
A lower infectious dose means that you need only a small about of the virus to get sick. This is not the case with the viruses that cause the common cold.
The doctor then goes on to state that SARS-CoV-2 is not like smallpox and cannot be eliminated with vaccination. He is correct. The two viruses that cause smallpox, Variola major and Variola minor, are only capable of infecting humans. Vaccinating all humans against them will make those viruses disappear.
SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that does have an animal host. The goal of vaccination for SARS-CoV-2 is increase the number of people who can fight off the infection before they become symptomatic.
Stock discusses this later by saying that “(we) can’t prevent (the spread) with the vaccine.”
Stopping COVID-19 infection was never the goal.
Comparing vaccination for COVID-19 to smallpox is deceptive and misleading.
They are different viruses and cannot be compared. It would be like comparing lemons and oranges. Both are citrus fruit, but that is where their similarities end. Vaccines for viruses that have animal hosts such as SARS-CoV-2 and influenza are designed to keep you from getting severe disease; not to completely wipe out the virus.
Stock also discusses Antibody Mediated Viral enhancement. This is a specific type of immune response that results in poor clinical outcomes (severe disease and death) for individuals. What occurs is that the proteins called antibodies made from the immune response to either the vaccine or natural infection with the virus, cause the immune system to go into overdrive.
This type of exaggerated response did occur in SARS, RSV, MERS, dengue and other viruses. This overdrive response was not seen in SARS-CoV-2 (Front. Cell. Infect. Microbiol: April 12, 2021, https://doi.org/10.3389/fcimb.2021.644574) (Science Translational Medicine: Nov. 4, 2020: Vol. 12, Issue 568, eabe0948).
For Stock to claim that this response is happening in COVID-19 patients is misleading. Non-human animals do not have the same immune systems as humans. They can and do respond differently. Using the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, no antibody mediated viral enhancement has occurred with the COVID-19 vaccines. (https://vaers.hhs.gov/data.html).
Why? Because science learns from its mistakes with those other viruses and used a vaccine that would allow the body to make antibodies that didn’t lead to this problem.
Stock states: “(we) made the outbreak happen from the vaccine.” This is false. The current resurgence of COVID-19 is a result of the new delta variant.
SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that is made of RNA. SARS-CoV-2 changes like a child growing. It basically looks the same, but it is a bit different. You can think of it like you changing your clothes and someone not recognizing you. This rate of change can be determined by math and is expected form all coronaviruses.
If we could have gotten 70-80% of the population (of the world) vaccinated back in March 2020, the delta variant could have never been.
However, with a large portion of the United States and the world not yet vaccinated, the rate of change will keep moving and we will keep seeing surges in the unvaccinated population.
The doctor also discusses Vitamin D, ivermectin and zinc as treatments for his 15 patients. There have been studies using these treatments in humans. They are promising.
Stock, in his statements, was misleading. Masks work to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 are safe and effective and are designed to stop symptomatic infection.
Wear a mask. Get the shot; it’s waiting for you.
Jill Henning is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a member of In This Together Cambria.