Unmasking New Variant Covid19

Masks, such as the one pictured above, are not medical grade PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and the coronavirus passes through them in either direction. This does not mean they completely ineffective in stopping infection. These simple cloth masks act as a barrier to small droplets of water containing the virus, reducing the load of Covid19 exhaled or inhaled and offering a degree of protection for both the wearer and anyone they are in close contact with. This undoubtably reduced the number of people who became infected during the first wave of the epidemic. However, it also means that now the the virus has mutated, as all viruses tend to do, people who would have caught the virus in its original form now catch a version with modified 'spikes.' These enhanced spikes seem to reduce the size of viral load needed to infect a victim. This may make the virus less dangerous if, as some believe, the severity of Covid19 is proportional to the amount of virus inhaled. However, it will also further reduce the effectiveness of anything other than a medical grade mask. This seems to support the argument that telling people to wear masks was a pointless infringement of their freedom of choice; it does not.

There was an absence of a joined up and consistent policy on mask wearing during the first wave of the Covid19 epidemic. Eventually people were encouraged to wear them because it would help save the NHS. This argument was far too nebulous and despite all the clapping and saucepan banging, human nature being what it is, many felt that wearing something which caused their glasses to steam up was a high price to pay to save an organisation they rarely used, or the lives of people they had never met. A far better approach would have been to sell the mask as protection for the wearer. But here opinion was divided because it was thought wearing of masks would make people complacent and ignore the social distancing which had more impact on reducing infections. Here, too, there seemed to be a lack of understanding of how we perceive risk.

A mask, even one adapted from socks or underwear, provides those around the wearer with a visual cue. It creates and environment in which people are subconsciously aware there is a risk of infection. Rather than moving closer to the person providing this visual cue the tendency is to stay distant from the threat.

New variant Covid19 has taken Britain by surprise by emerging in the South East of England, a region which until recently saw relatively few victims. We are still struggling to build and effective transmission model for this virus. Maybe infection is influenced by the weather, with the original virus spreading more easily in the damp air of wet rainy regions such as Wales and the North West than in the dryer South and East. This would explain why a new variant, that is more infectious has now gained traction in Cambridgeshire, Essex, Kent and other counties with large populations of ‘Covid19 virgins.’

Had there been a more consistent and targeted message explaining the benefits of wearing masks in public places from the start of the epidemic it might have been possible to keep infection rates low enough to ensure testing and tracing worked effectively. It might also have enabled the early detection of variants. The failure of patients to complete courses of antibiotics enables antibiotic resistant bacteria to evolve. In much the same way inconsistent use of masks has seen a PPE resistant strain of coronavirus to gain a foothold in Britain. It seems Covid19 infects as fast as public health departments plan and adapts faster than they modify policies or interpret research.