Face masks: will they be needed post 2021?

A year ago, many of us wouldn’t have considered wearing a face masks to carry out everyday tasks such as going to the supermarket, heading into work, or taking public transport. Covid-19 changed that entirely, and whilst there is still some resistance to wearing face masks they have become the norm, at least for now. Will we be seeing more mask wearing in the future though?

Stopping the spread

Covid-19 spreads easily from person to person via droplets which are emitted when we cough, sneeze, or talk. During 2020, the two main methods employed to reduce virus transmission were physical distancing to limit contact with infectious individuals, and decreasing the likelihood of transmission where contact was unavoidable (with the latter included methods such as hand washing and, of course, mask wearing). Mandatory wearing of face masks proved to be a controversial topic; however, scientists were (and still are) largely in agreement when it comes to recommending face masks, and state masks are effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19 when a large proportion of the population complies.

Towards the end of 2020, there was a breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19 as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved for use, with the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine following shortly afterwards. Vaccination roll-outs began at the start of 2021, and for many people, there was finally light at the end of the Covid tunnel. Millions of people in the United Kingdom have received the first dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine; it was hoped that social distancing measures could be reduced and that face masks could finally be ditched for good. It seems that in reality, things may not be that simple.

Variant strains

The virus responsible for Covid-19 has undergone many mutations, which is normal. Many of these changes don’t produce any significant effects in either the disease severity or the rate of transmission, however a small number of mutations have allowed the virus to spread more easily. The first variant to come to attention was the B117 strain, more commonly known as the ‘Kent variant’; this mutated coronavirus was able to enter the cells it infects more efficiently compared to the non-mutated form of the virus. As a result, the Kent variant coronavirus could be spread twice as quickly, and it rapidly swept through the UK to become the most prominent form of the virus.

A second altered version of the virus which is currently garnering substantial media attention is the ‘South African variant’ coronavirus. This variant strain contains a mutation called E484K, which causes a spike protein on the surface of the virus to be altered; this spike is what vaccines have been developed to recognise, and alterations in it are causing the vaccine to trigger a lower immune response. Even more worryingly, this E484K mutation has also been identified in a small number of cases caused by the Kent variant coronavirus.

What does the future hold?

Whilst the roll-out of vaccines is definitely a cause for celebration, don’t start planning to get rid of your face masks just yet. Scientists cannot say for certain what will happen in the future, and the ability of the virus to mutate adds to an already confusing situation. The Kent strain containing the E484K mutation is currently only present in a handful of cases, and it’s hoped that the spread can be restricted, but a strain which can spread rapidly as well as reduce the effectiveness of vaccines shouldn’t be taken lightly. At the moment people shouldn’t panic, but don’t be surprised if face masks remain common in 2022.

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