Immunity can be achieved by inhaling small doses of COVID-19: Hamilton researchers


By Anthony Urciuoli

Published on May 4, 2022 at 3:51 p.m.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton have developed a model that suggests we can achieve high levels of immunity to COVID-19 through ‘variolation’.

Infectious disease researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton have developed a mathematical model that suggests communities can achieve high levels of immunity to COVID-19 through ‘variolation’ – by inhaling smaller doses of virus and boosting immunity over time.

How can individuals ensure they are only exposed to small doses of COVID? By wearing face masks, according to the researchers.

“If the variolation effect is strong, then the number of severe cases, and therefore the strain on health systems, could be significantly reduced if most people wear masks – even if masks do not prevent them from dying. ‘get infected,’ says lead author David Earn, Faculty of Science Research Chair in Mathematical Epidemiology. He is also a professor of mathematics at McMaster and is part of the Canadian Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats.

Earn has studied the dynamics of infectious disease transmission and the population-level consequences of wearing masks.

Variolation was used in the 18th century when dried smallpox scabs were blown into the nose of an individual, who then contracted a mild form of the disease and developed immunity.

Immunity can be achieved by inhaling small doses of COVID-19: Hamilton researchers

The new mathematical model allows researchers to estimate the potential impact of variolation by masking on the population as a whole. They found that masking could significantly slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the pressures facing healthcare professionals.

“Our qualitative findings are that the value of masking is underestimated in a public health setting, particularly as COVID-19 moves from pandemic to endemic, and we should think twice about getting rid of the mask mandates,” says Zachary Levine, lead author of the study and a former undergraduate student in the arts and science program at McMaster. He is now a graduate student at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

“As we prepare for the next pandemic, understanding how different infection control strategies might affect disease dynamics could help us understand which policies are worth pursuing.”

“If wearing a mask protects you in addition to those in the room around you, it could also have significant impacts for anyone who may not be in the room,” adds Levine.

The researchers say their findings could apply to any respiratory infection transmitted by inhaling infectious particles.

The study was published online in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

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