The coronavirus has spread to every corner of the globe, infecting more than one million people and killing at least 60,000 since November. Billions have been told to isolate at home to stop the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while people in less affected countries are scrambling to secure supplies of face masks and hand sanitiser. But does wearing a face mask help stop the spread of coronavirus?

Researchers at the University of Maryland, US, have constructed a “breath-capturing” machine to test how people become infected with airborne pathogens.

Coronavirus is believed to spread through contact with contaminated surfaces as well as through droplets of bodily fluid released when coughing or sneezing.

The study, led by Dr Don Milton, found surgical face masks can help prevent people from infecting others with seasonal viruses, including coronaviruses.

Dr Milton said: “In normal times we’d say that if it wasn’t shown statistically significant or the effective in real-world studies, we don’t recommend it.

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“But in the middle of a pandemic, we’re desperate.

“The thinking is that even if it cuts down transmission a little bit, it’s worth trying.”

The study, which was conducted before the deadly pandemic, could influence how governments tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Dr Milton has already advised the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on his findings, which were published in the journal Nature Medicine on April 3.

In the study, Dr Milton and co-authors wrote: “Surgical face masks significantly reduced detection of influenza virus RNA in respiratory droplets and coronavirus RNA in aerosols, with a trend toward reduced detection of coronavirus RNA in respiratory droplets.

“Our results indicate that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals.”

But in the middle of a pandemic, we’re desperate

Dr Don Milton, University of Maryland

The study’s findings suggest people already infected with the coronavirus could wear face masks to stop the disease from spreading.

The study did not, however, address the question of whether healthy people should wear face masks to stop catching the virus.

The findings come amid widespread discussions by health officials over the effectiveness of wearing face masks.

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Professor K.K. Cheng at Birmingham University in the UK, told AFP there is a “definitive shift in the position of the US” towards wearing masks.

Professor Cheng himself advocated for their use.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is also reviewing its stance on face masks.

Until now, the WHO has maintained healthy people only need to wear face masks if they are caring for an infected person, or when coughing and sneezing.

The WHO said: “Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

“If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.”

Here in the UK, Public Health England and the NHS advise wearing a surgical mask or respirator when caring for patients “with suspected or confirmed infectious respiratory virus”.

The advice is issued to all healthcare workers who are the frontline of battling the coronavirus.

Members of the public are typically advised against wearing face masks because they can become a source of infection due to mishandling.

Face masks can also give people a false sense of security at a time when everyone has a role to play in curbing the pandemic.

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