Masks Found To Be Ineffective After First Omicron Wave: New Study

MAY 30, 2024 – Authored by Megan Redshaw, J.D. via The Epoch Times 

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks were a recommended public health measure to prevent transmission of the virus. Yet new research suggests masks were ineffective at reducing the risk of infection when Omicron became the dominant variant.

In a study published in PLOS ONE, researchers found that several risk factors for infection, including wearing a mask, changed significantly in December 2021 when Omicron became the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant.

To help explain why some interventions were associated with a decreased risk of infection early in the pandemic but were less protective or associated with an increased risk later on, the researchers examined survey data from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) from 200,000 people who were tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.

Along with publishing data on disease prevalence, the ONS asked people questions about their circumstances and habits from November 2021 to May 2022 to determine whether certain risk factors were associated with positive COVID-19 tests. This time period covered multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the final few weeks of the Delta variant and Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.2.

According to the study, adults and children who consistently wore masks at work, school, or in enclosed spaces prior to November 2021 had a reduced risk of infection, but not after the onset of the first wave of Omicron.

During the first wave of Omicron, never wearing a mask was associated with an increased risk of infection of about 30 percent in adults and 10 percent in children. But by the second wave, driven by the BA.2 subvariant from February 2022 onwards, wearing a mask offered no protection for adults and potentially increased the risk of infection for children.

“Early in the pandemic there were many studies published looking at risk factors for catching COVID, but far fewer studies after the first year or so. Our research shows that there were changes in some risk factors around the time the Omicron BA.2 variant became dominant,” lead author Dr. Paul Hunter of Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, said in a news release.

Changes in Risk Factors May Explain Findings

Julii Brainard, the paper’s corresponding author and a senior researcher in population health at Norwich Medical School in the UK, explained in an email to The Epoch Times that several risk factors had changed over the entire pandemic, which could explain their findings.

“Our best guesses, and this is a bunch of guesses, is that a few things converged: In the UK by December 2021, most people had had multiple vaccinations and at least one, if not many, wild infections,” Ms. Brainard said.

“When [the] COVID pandemic started, its superpower was that everyone was susceptible to infection. Some people had mild symptoms, many people had terrible illness that threatened to overwhelm all health services. Social distancing rules and wearing masks didn’t provide perfect protection, but they probably prevented many infections in 2020 and helped to buy time until good vaccines were developed,” she added.

“However, the role of vaccination and repeat wild infections meant that, on average, by early 2022, the average severity of illness was very mild. So mild, in fact, that many people could end up transmitting without knowing they ever had it, and that would include within households; very few people wore masks around housemates. People drop their guard around the other people they have [the] most contact with, if they don’t seem ill at least,” she said.

As seen with emerging new diseases, Ms. Brainard said natural epidemic development may also explain their findings as later variants infect people differently than earlier ones. For example, later variants could make a disease more transmissible or easier to catch but result in milder illness over time. Additionally, the virus may affect the respiratory tract differently.

Ms. Brainard said another factor could be that our immune systems don’t form permanent immunity against a virus like SARS-CoV-2. As a result, people may experience recurring, generally mild cases of COVID-19 infections for the rest of their lives as the virus circulates forever among humans.

“Highly transmissible, very common, likely to be fairly mild in symptoms, is a perfect infection to spread within small social circles or households,” she said. “Maybe wearing a mask outside the home ceased to be that useful a protection because there was so much transmission likely to happen within ‘trusted’ social circles anyway.”

Masks Only Modestly Reduce Risk

Ms. Brainard told The Epoch Times that she and her co-author, Dr. Paul Hunter, felt that some people invested “way too much faith” in wearing masks. Their 2020 systematic review suggested that masks only modestly reduced the risk of transmission of influenza-like illnesses by about 19 percent if both parties—the infected and susceptible—wore masks.

Dr. Hunter has repeatedly referenced statements from the World Health Organization dating back to 2002, which suggest that nonpharmaceutical interventions only buy time in epidemics, and that pharmacological solutions actually shorten epidemics and reduce morbidity and mortality, she said.

“I personally felt bewildered when I encountered any people passionately promoting masks—the deep faith they wanted to place in wearing a mask. And the anger people expressed about wearing a mask or not,” Ms. Brainard told The Epoch Times.

At the same time, there’s “plenty to not be surprised about” as it relates to the paper’s findings, she said. We were already aware of certain aspects of epidemic development based on previous research, which guided our expectations. We know that epidemics naturally peak and subside, although they may reemerge. We also know that new microbial infections tend to become more transmissible and less dangerous over time, and that populations develop resistance to new diseases. Additionally, we understand that respiratory diseases are highly transmissible and challenging to contain, with most transmission occurring between people who are in close physical proximity, she added.

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