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Scientist’s plea for Australians to wear face masks

A data scientist has said he is “terrified for Australia” and that the current coronavirus infections in the country could be the “tip of the iceberg”.

Jeremy Howard, an Australian researcher who works at the University of San Francisco, was speaking on the Today show this morning.

He has started a campaign called Masks4All that aims to encourage people to wear masks in public despite current advice that they are of little use unless someone is infected.

“I specialise in medical data. I’ve looked at every research paper that’s looked into this. There is no question: face masks work,” Mr Howard told host Karl Stefanovic.

His warning comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it would examine its guidance around mask wearing amid increasing evidence wearing one could play a role in slowing new infections.

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He said that a key way the virus can be spread is when people talk and tiny bits of salvia are expelled from their mouth towards the person they are speaking too.

“It’s kind of gross, but it happens. The saliva goes up to six feet; it hits your eyes, nose, mouth and you get infected.

“If you put a piece of cloth in front of the liquid, it doesn’t go any further. That’s how simple this is.”

Mr Howard said up to 50 per cent of those people with coronavirus were likely to not display any symptoms. So, these people might assume they were well and choose not to wear a mask when they were actually putting people at risk.

“The Australian way is to look after your mates. It is not to leave your face open so people can see how beautiful you are, knowing you could be killing the people around you.”

People didn’t have to wear surgical masks he said, any covering – such as a scarf across the mouth – would suffice.

Mr Howard pointed to Japan as a country that has seen far fewer infections and deaths than larger countries despite it having less stringent social-distancing rules and testing.

That was because mask wearing was widespread in Japan, he said.


Asked how he saw coronavirus going in Australia, Mr Howard painted a bleak picture of infections soaring as we head into winter.

“I’m terrified for Australia. The data suggests it is a seasonal illness and as winter comes, transmission rates will go up a lot.

“The southern hemisphere is warmer and folks in Australia will get apathetic,” he said.

“If you don’t have testing and tracing in place before winter, it will be the 1918 pandemic all over again where most of the deaths happened in the next winter.

“So, what we are seeing now will be like the tip of the iceberg.”

The 1918 flu pandemic killed millions worldwide and around 15,000 of the then 5 million Australians despite the country dealing with the crisis far better than other nations.

Stefanovic said his outlook seemed to be at odds with the current picture that has seen new infections on a downward trend in Australia.

“Once June comes along, there will be that bit of virus out there in the community; it will kick out and people won’t be ready for it,” said Mr Howard.

“Australia has got months to prepare. Taiwan has only had four deaths. They have masks. So, Australia has to use this time that you have got to prepare.”

In Australia, there is specific advice around the use of a surgical mask.

“If you have COVID-19, wearing a surgical mask can help prevent spreading it to others,” the Department of Health advises.

“If you are well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask. There is little evidence that widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people prevents transmission.”


However, the WHO will now review whether more people should be wearing them after a new study called current guidelines into question.

An advisory panel led by Prof David Heymann – a former director at the organisation – told the BBC “the WHO is opening up its discussion again looking at the new evidence to see whether or not there should be a change in the way it’s recommending masks should be used.”

It comes after a US study found coughs and sneezes can travel around 7-8 metres – far further than the current 1-2 metres assumed under WHO and US Centres for Disease Control guidelines.

“These distances are based on estimates of range that have not considered the possible presence of a high-momentum cloud carrying the droplets long distances,” the MIT study found.

The current guidelines “may underestimate the distance, timescale, and persistence over which the (sneeze or cough) cloud and its pathogenic payload travel, thus generating an underappreciated potential exposure range for a health care worker,” the paper said.

Used properly, Mr Heymann said, the new research might even find masks were more effective than lockdown measures. But, he warned, they had to be worn properly to be effective – with clean hands, changed often and not taken off to eat or smoke.

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