Coronavirus: Wearing a face mask ‘not sufficient’ to avoid infection

Coronavirus: Wearing a face mask ‘not sufficient’ to avoid infection
The recent coronavirus outbreak has led to a surge of people wearing face masks - as seen here being worn by Chinese tourists on a beach near Dubai's Burj Al-Arab - but experts have warned the masks would not be sufficient to prevent infection. (AFP)
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Updated 30 January 2020

Coronavirus: Wearing a face mask ‘not sufficient’ to avoid infection

Coronavirus: Wearing a face mask ‘not sufficient’ to avoid infection
  • Genano, a Finnish company that specializes in air purification, spoke to Arab News
  • WHO was first alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City in December 2019

DUBAI: Many cities with confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have reported a shortage of face masks, as large numbers of people try to protect themselves from what has been described as a “highly contagious” infection.

However, what many people do not know, is that the new type of coronavirus – 2019-nCoV – is airborne, and therefore wearing a face mask is “not sufficient,” Genano, a Finnish company that specializes in air purification, told Arab News.

“Even HEPA filter masks do not provide the right protection as they are only capable of filtering microbes as small as 0.3um and the coronavirus is 0.1um,” said Mia Schauman, area manager for Genano in the Gulf region.

She explained that while masks being used as preventative measures can protect a person from a cough or any “droplets” they may be exposed to, they are ineffective in avoiding being stricken by the newest member of the coronavirus family.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei province of China in December 2019. The virus raised concerns when it did not match any other known infection and was finally identified as a new strain of coronavirus on January 7, 2020.

So far, the deadly virus, which originated in the city of Wuhan, central China, has claimed the lives of 170 people, spreading across 20 countries and infecting close to 8,000 people.

On Wednesday, the first case of the virus in the Middle East was reported after the UAE confirmed that a Chinese family of four had been infected by the coronavirus.

“We have open lines of communication with the UAE Ministry of Health and are ready to assist in any way we can,” said Schauman.

To help contain the virus in China, the Finnish company had been working closely with Chinese authorities by providing air decontamination units to hospitals in Jiangsu, Hubei and Guangdong provinces.

“When we were first contacted the situation was critical and we were able to deploy over 200 units within 24 hours,” said Schauman.

“Our manufacturing facility in Finland is now working round the clock to produce more units as the geographical impact of the outbreak is increasingly daily,” she added. 

The company had created a “negative pressure isolation room” concept that allows the air to be cleaned within the space where an infected patient is being treated.

While the solution works to contain an infection, prevention is just as critical when facing an outbreak such as the coronavirus, Schauman said.

In the case of an outbreak, the decontamination units allow healthcare institutions and laboratories to act fast and set up a mobile clean room when additional hygiene standards are required.

Schauman said the advanced technology ensures that all airborne microbes, no matter the size, such as viruses and bacteria are destroyed and eliminated from public and contained space.

“The clean rooms host a unique electric filtration technology and have been equipped with a negative pressure kit to supply a clean air flow,” she said.

The company also provides free stand-alone units for patient rooms, hospital waiting areas and other public spaces.

In recent times, the WHO had also advised that hospitals should have one isolation unit per 20 beds to be prepared for an outbreak such as coronavirus.

Genano also played a significant role in containing the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in Saudi Arabia.

The team worked with central hospitals treating infected patients to deliver the decontamination units and set up the isolation rooms, said Schauman.

“We were able to mobilize the team quickly and the healthcare facilities were able to treat patients safely and without the risk of contamination.”

Comparing the MERS epidemic with the current coronavirus outbreak, she noted that “regional and logistical differences” such as the type of infection and speed of transmission play a significant impact on treatment and containment for patients.

“MERS in particular was a localized outbreak and recorded cases were restricted to the region,” said Schauman, adding that with the current coronavirus outbreak, “the speed and scale with which we have needed to react is significantly higher.”

However, the company, which has a base in the UAE, said they are working on evolving the isolation room concept to ensure that it can be implemented in any environment whether to prevent or to contain an outbreak.