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A recent study using hamsters to test the efficacy of wearing masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 appeared on various news sites.
Tests on hamsters showed wearing surgical masks can significantly reduce the non-contact transmission of the deadly Covid-19 virus, especially when masks were worn by infected individuals, according to a study led by HKU infectious disease expert Prof Yuen Kwok-yung.
The study, released on Sunday, shed light on an ongoing heated debate on whether wearing masks would help prevent the transmission of the deadly coronavirus.
In each set of the experiment, hamsters were separated in two groups and placed in two cages, with one of the groups infected with Covid-19.
In the first experiment, no surgical masks were placed between the two cages. In the second one, a surgical mask was placed closer to the healthy hamsters. In the third experiment, the mask was placed closer to the infected, as if the healthy ones or the infected were wearing masks.
To be clear, even without this experiment, it should have already been obvious that wearing a mask can help to prevent or minimize the spread or the contraction of COVID-laden droplets if one sneezes while wearing a decent mask or if anyone wearing a mask is close to someone who sneezes. Is it a foolproof way to protect against airborne COVID-laden droplets? Not really, because COVID-laden droplets can still land on one’s skin or penetrate one’s eye sockets if a heretofore uninfected person is close enough to an infected sneezer.
For more thorough protection, everyone should really wear full, hermetically-sealed hazmat suits and after taking them off at home each evening, conscientious citizens and their suits should be fully-scrubbed with long-handled brushes in steaming hot showers with soaps and industrial-grade sanitizers. If you walk your dog, then your dog should also have a hazmat suit. Some cats have tested positive for COVID-19, so they too should wear hazmat suits for everyone’s safety. Cats, unlike dogs, are not as obliging when it comes to wearing masks. So, full kitty cat-sized hazmat suits are recommended. In fitting your cat into a hazmat suit, it is recommended that you wear thick, padded gloves and other protective gear. But I digress. Back to hamsters. As yet, experiments testing the propagation of the COVID-19 virus with hamsters in full hazmat suits has not been conducted or, if conducted, the findings have, as yet, not been made available to media outlets.
Naturally, the Hong Kong researchers found that the spread of the virus was diminished when the hamsters just wore their scaled-down surgical masks. Not terribly earth-shattering. But to be serious for just a few seconds, I mean how useful is the study, really? Physiologically hamsters (like other small mammals) and humans have a lot of similarities in the way each species metabolizes various drugs or medicines or deals with viruses and bacteria…which is why hamsters or mice, or rats, or various species of primates are studied.
Extrapolating behavioral metrics to see what may be applicable to a population of humans also engaged in such activities can be a bit trickier and has at times been more controversial —like trying to gauge a group of hamsters’ interest in various cooking and gardening shows, or discerning their preferences for types of music, perfumes, colognes, dimly-lit bars, and esoteric tequila brands so as to enhance their probability of hooking up with hamsters of the opposite sex, or attempting to evaluate a male hamster’s willingness to do household chores after repeated nagging by female hamsters.
Thus in trying to extract or map out any more meaningful or more precise human metrics on the likely viral infection rates while wearing or not wearing masks from a study like this could be more challenging and might be met with a modicum of skepticism — because, despite any Kia Soul car commercials you may have seen (see photo above), and I’m going to spitball here, there are a few notable differences between hamsters and human beings (although some women reading this may beg to differ, having dated a hamster-like human or two in high school or college).
For example, it is my understanding for some time now, that humans tend to be taller than hamsters, even little humans, also referred to as children. For the most part, humans also tend to stand or walk erect on two feet (unless the human is driving a Kia Soul or other motorized vehicle or sitting at sidewalk café near the Seine sipping espresso with a Gauloise dangling from his or her lower lip, or sleeping or passed out drunk on an old beat-up sofa in a fraternity house. What I mean to say, is that for the most part, humans do not often crawl about on all fours like hamsters or crawl over one another as a matter of course in everyday life (unless, of course, the frat party has been raging for several hours).
When not under house arrest, humans also tend to inhabit or roam over more expansive spaces when out in public or even at home and are not typically confined to small cages unless they are tiny home fanatics…in that case, any study with hamsters in cages with humans will have more relevancy. I think one can argue that hamster cages typically used for laboratory research which are not as lavishly appointed as hamster cages in American suburban households with rock climbing walls, Jacuzzis®, tanning booths, and little Pelatons® and are for the most much more confining and overcrowded spaces that they must share with other furry inhabitants of said cage that often crawl over one another and vastly different than say the inside of a Costco or Walmart store or any given supermarket. This argument, of course, completely falls apart when dealing with Black Friday sales in Best Buy. Black Friday sales aside, humans for the most part – even before social distancing – still tend to at least maintain respective “personal spacing” and don’t typically climb over and on top of one another like hamsters in a cage…unless it’s a really wild frat party…in that case, the hamster ergonomic model would be virtually identical.
Humans also tend to wear clothing. Hamsters do not…unless lab assistants, like many Shih Tzu owners, who have fitted these little rodents with their surgical masks get a bit silly and start clothing the hamsters in other apparel to look like police officers or bandits or damsels in distress to study various law enforcement scenarios or clothe hamsters in sombreros, ponchos, and various ethnic costumes to understand the dangers of cultural appropriation.
In summation, in order to better measure the efficacy of virus mitigation by the wearing of masks, rather than using hamsters, researchers really should incentivize human subjects to strip naked, allow themselves to be confined to small cages, and crawl over one another on their hands and knees while wearing and not wearing masks. Many college students and even some adults in certain social circles may already be engaged in such hamster-like activity where the transmission of various pathogens and other communicable diseases is quite prevalent. I suppose arguments can be made whether these groups should be more isolated from mainstream society and studied in more controlled settings…for general health reasons.Published in