[EXPERT REACTION] Can face masks protect you from COVID-19?

(Photo: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

There has been a recent debate, to wear or not to wear a face mask. So we asked experts this question: 

“Is wearing face masks an effective protection against COVID-19?”


Dr Taznim Begam Mohd Mohidin, Virologist & Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, University Malaya, said: 

“The main transmission route of coronavirus is through droplets (produced by infected person, from sneezing and coughing). Surgical face masks worn by many are effective at capturing droplets when the masks are dry.  

If you are at risk of being in close contact with someone who is infected with coronavirus, wearing a face mask reduces the chance of the virus being passed on to you. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19 or showing symptoms, wearing a mask will protect others from getting the disease. 

Masks (N95) and goggles are very crucial for healthcare workers who work very closely with infected individuals as it is possible for viruses to also transmit through the eyes and tiny particles (aerosols) that can penetrate surgical masks.”

Dr Jasmine Khairat, Virologist & Senior Lecturer at Institute of Biological Sciences (ISB) Faculty of Science in the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, said:

“If you are in close contact with someone infected with SARS-CoV2, the mask will help create a barrier from the infectious droplets thus lowering the chance of passing the disease on.”

Dr Ng Siew Kit, Biochemist & Senior Lecturer at the Advanced Medical and Dental Institute, Universiti Sains Malaysia, said: 

“It depends on how you define effective. If you are looking for definitive protection, then a face mask alone is insufficient. If your only alternative is not wearing a face mask, then wearing one does confer you more protection against being infected. However, personal hygiene and behaviour also play a big role in protecting yourself. You can be wearing N95 masks, but that wouldn’t protect you if you constantly pick your nose without washing your hand.

It is important to know that the whole world is under pandemic threat from COVID-19, and there may be a shortage of PPE worldwide. To prevent collapse of the medical system, we have to first safeguard our medical frontliners. If most of us reduce our exposure risk by staying at home, practice good hygiene and social distancing, we will be able to free up more personal protective equipments (PPE), including face masks for our medical frontliners.”

Dr Tan Cheng Siang, Virologist & Head of Centre for Tropical and Emerging Diseases, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University Malaysia Sarawak, said: 

“It depends. Face mask or better known as surgical mask is designed to capture expiratory droplets from the user so that it does not infect the others. Face masks have no filtration capability and cannot be used to filter off airborne viruses. Nevertheless, a discipline use of face mask with understanding may prevent you from unknowingly touching your face, digging your nose or sucking your fingers, reducing the chances of self-inoculation of virus on your hand into your nose or mouth.”

Dr Cindy Teh, Microbiologist & Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, said:

“No. There is no evidence showing that by wearing face mask, one can protect him/herself from infections. More precisely, a face mask is effective in preventing the spread of disease from a sick person to others around him. This is because of the structure and materials of face mask: the outer layer of the mask is water-proof and dust proof; middle layer is a filter which can prevent the passing of microorganisms; while the inner absorbance layer could absorb most of the droplets produced during talking, coughing and sneezing. 

Studies showed that wearing face masks does more for our mental satisfaction than our physical well-being. Wearing face mask can soothe the anxiety and create a false sense of security. This would then lead to the neglecting of fundamental hygiene measures, such as proper hand hygiene. In addition, Malaysian are not well-educated about the proper way to wear and dispose of face mask. 

Every day, everywhere, you can see people wearing the same mask for long hours, reusing the mask, touching the outer layer of mask, hanging the mask uselessly below their noses, pulling the mask towards their chin when eating and even wearing a mask when they are driving. There are also masks being thrown at the roadside or in a trash can without a lid. Improper wearing and discarding masks could actually do more harm than good.”

Disclaimer: Science Media Centre Malaysia has collected these comments to provide journalists with a range of expert perspectives on the subject. The views expressed here are personal opinions of the experts. They do not in any way reflect the views of the Science Media Centre or any other organization unless specifically stated. 
Bionotes of experts

Dr Cindy Teh is a senior lecturer from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya. She is a microbiologist and trained in biorisk management. She has been assisting Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) infection control department to trace the transmission of infectious diseases since 2013. Dr. Cindy has been publishing her research findings in internationally renowned journals and served as reviewer for the journals. She has been awarded research grants and awards from national and international bodies for her research in infectious diseases.

Dr Jasmine Khairat received her PhD and virology training from Monash University Malaysia. Currently, she is a senior lecturer at Institute of Biological Sciences (ISB) Faculty of Science in the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has been teaching Microbiology courses. Her researches include host-pathogen interactions, virus surveillance, emerging infectious diseases and antiviral studies involving respiratory viruses specifically influenza virus to improve our knowledge in viral pathogenesis.

Dr Ng Siew Kit is a senior lecturer in Advanced Medical and Dental Institute, Universiti Sains Malaysia (AMDI, USM).  He received his undergraduate education and Ph.D. training in Biochemistry at University of Cambridge, UK. He is a principal investigator within the RNA-Bio Research Group at AMDI, USM. His main research interest is on antiviral innate immunity. In particular, he works on virus detection and signaling pathways during viral infections, as well as regulatory mechanisms of the subsequent type I interferon response.

Dr Tan Cheng Siang is the Head of Centre for Tropical and Emerging Diseases, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University Malaysia Sarawak. A trained virologist, he has more than 20 years experience in handling infectious viruses, virus isolation and identification, phylogeny, molecular epidemiology, recombinant protein expression and diagnostic tool development. He is also a certified biosafety officer and holds four Certified Professional credentials from the International Federation of Biosafety Associations (IFBA). 

Dr Taznim Begam Mohd Mohidin is a virologist and is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Microbiology Program, Institute of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, University Malaya. She received her BSc (Hons) in Microbiology and MSc in Molecular biology from Universiti Putra Malaysia, with research works focusing on Nipah virus. The role of viruses in cancers sparked her interest to pursue her PhD in University Malaya, in which she studied the effects of viral gene silencing in Esptein-Barr virus-associated cancer cells. Dr Taznim’s research interests are in the fields of virology and immunology, particularly on influenza virus, Epstein-Barr virus and innate immunity which includes antiviral defense and inflammation.

**View all previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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