Study of Bangladesh shows masks reduce COVID-19 infections

A randomised and large trial in Bangladesh has demonstrated the effectiveness of masks in preventing COVID-19 infection in a real-world community setting for the first time.

Co-authored by Yale School of Management’s Jason Abaluck and Mushfiq Mobarak, the study shows that masks indeed reduce COVID-19 infections.

The researchers found that a campaign to promote mask-wearing reduced symptomatic infections significantly, particularly among older people and those using surgical masks.

The study, published on Yale University’s website on Sept 1, involved more than 340,000 people in 600 villages. It was conducted by Mobarak and Abaluck in collaboration with the research and policy group Innovations for Poverty Action and scholars from Stanford University, the University of California Berkeley, and other universities.

In the first part of the study, completed this spring, the researchers found that a “cocktail” of four interventions, including endorsements from community leaders and reminders from roving monitors, increased mask wearing to 42 percent in the targeted villages, up from 13 percent in control villages, as recorded by an observation team.

That study’s recommendations have now reached more than 100 million people, having been adopted by governments across South Asia and drawn the support of major companies and NGOs.

In the second part of the study, the researchers surveyed people in the targeted and control villages about COVID-19 symptoms. Those who reported symptoms were asked to provide blood samples, which were tested for COVID-19 antibodies.

The results showed that there were 9.3 percent fewer symptomatic infections in villages that were targeted in the mask promotion programme.

The effect was even greater in the villages where the team distributed surgical masks rather than cloth masks. In those areas, infections were 11 percent lower overall, 23 percent lower among people between 50 and 60, and 35 percent lower among people over 60.

The researchers emphasise that this reduction in infections was achieved with just 42 percent of people wearing masks.

The effect of near-universal mask-wearing may be several times larger, they estimate.

The increased protection from infection for older individuals, who are more at risk, is also significant.

“It would be a big mistake to infer from our paper that masks can only prevent 10% of infections,” says Abaluck. “We think what the results show is that masks are an incredibly powerful tool to reduce symptomatic COVID infections and particularly to reduce symptomatic COVID infections in the people who are most vulnerable to death or very serious illness.”

Concerned about diverting supplies from healthcare workers and creating a false sense of security that would reduce compliance with public health recommendations like social distancing and hand washing, health authorities had advised against the use of masks by the public in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic

The US Centers for Disease Control had reversed itself by April 2020 and the World Health Organization followed suit in June. Masks were eventually adopted in much of the world. But evidence of the effectiveness of masks in preventing infection has been limited to lab experiments and healthcare settings.