The Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA), India’s highest science advisory body, has recommended the widespread use of masks. It is a key coordinating agency among government scientific bodies and industry to accelerate decisions on dealing with COVID-19.
“The proposed guide is meant to provide a simple outline of best practices to make, use and reuse masks to enable NGOs and individuals to self-create such masks and accelerate widespread adoption of masks across India. The key criteria for proposed designs are Ease of Access to Materials, Easy of Making at Home, Ease of Use and Reuse. Wearing of masks is especially recommended for people living in densely populated areas across India,” notes the advisory, which was made public via the Press Information Bureau on Tuesday.
It doesn’t recommend the use of the health mask or the N95 mask that are expensive, not-reusable and largely used in hospital settings.
K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also read: When do you need to wear a mask?
An S & T Empowered Committee, chaired by Vinod Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, and VijayRaghavan, was constituted on March 19, 2020.
The Health Ministry, which is the nodal agency for monitoring the pandemic as well as issuing dos and don’ts, hasn’t issued fresh recommendations on the use of masks.
As of Tuesday, the Ministry confirms 1117 active Covid infections in the country.
Its most recent advisory, as on the March 17, was that masks need be worn by the healthy only if they are taking care of a sick person with suspected COVID infection. It also advises masks for those who are coughing and sneezing.
The argument against the widespread use of masks—endorsed by the World Health Organisation– was that they are vital for doctors and nurses who spend long hours extremely close to those who were likely infected, and a shortage would hamper them. Moreover, the scientific consensus was that COVID-19 wasn’t an airborne disease and most people contracted it through coming in contact with infectious droplets picked up from surfaces.
The March 31 advisory from the PSA recommends the use of home-made cotton masks that are reusable after appropriate washing and disinfection that can be done at home. It says only those masks be used that fit well on the face and aren’t a replacement for frequent handwashing with soap and water, or alcohol-based sanitiser.
The manual references the WHO, and cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that says: COVID-19 virus spreads easily from person to person contact. Virus carrying droplets dry fast enough to form droplet nuclei and remain airborne eventually landing on different surfaces. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been detected in aerosols for up to three hours and on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days.
It also a cites a study that says “… if 50% of the population were to wear masks, only 50% of the population would be infected by the virus. Once 80% of the population wears a mask, the outbreak can be stopped immediately,”. This however is from a 2019 study in journal Risk Analysis and based on a modelling study on containing influenza outbreaks. Sars Cov-2 is comparably contagious but different in structure from influenza viruses.
On March 27, George Gao, Director, Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview to Science that the United States and Europe made “a big mistake” by not wearing masks. “Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”