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Scientists shred new research for mask mandates as 'junk science,' 'irredeemably flawed'

Study promoted by Pulitzer winner would fail undergraduate med school class, U.K. researcher claims.

Published: August 15, 2022 4:55pm

Updated: August 15, 2022 11:13pm

The current unpopularity of mask mandates in American school districts has not stopped mask advocates from promoting their return as a COVID-19 mitigation measure, but the research used to justify mandates is facing expanded scrutiny.

A preprint of a study conducted in Boston-area school districts, not yet peer-reviewed, is "irredeemably flawed" in part because the researchers seemed unaware they were comparing apples and oranges, University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Vinay Prasad wrote in his newsletter Sunday.

"How junk science got spread like wildfire," pediatric infectious disease researcher Alasdair Munro wrote in his newsletter last week, analyzing a widely shared meta-analysis of mask research. The preprint is "so riddled with basic errors" Munro wondered if it was an academic hoax along the lines of physicist Alan Sokal's postmodern prank.

The Boston mask study has an elite imprimatur, performed by researchers at Harvard and Boston University schools of public health and the Boston Public Health Commission. It received glowing coverage in The Boston Globe.

In the 79 school districts of greater Boston, only Boston and Chelsea kept mask mandates in February when Massachusetts dropped its mandate. Earlier in the year, differences recorded between schools were statistically insignificant. Now, however, the researchers estimated the mask-optional districts saw about 45 more COVID cases per 1,000 students and staff over the following 15 weeks, "representing nearly 30% of all cases observed in schools during that time."

The researchers emphasized the mandate districts, which had more black, Latino, disabled and English-learner students, tended to have more crowded classrooms, a possible factor in viral transmission. 

"Our study confirms that universal masking requirements can benefit all students and staff, and therefore represents an important strategy to mitigate the impacts of structural racism, ensure health equity, and to avoid potential deepening of educational inequities," the study concluded.

UCSF's Prasad noted the study "does not adjust for community burden," a strange choice given that earlier research has shown schools aren't a major spreader, but he was so startled by another omission that he said "the paper should never appear in a journal."

Massachusetts rules exempt masked individuals from COVID testing as "close contacts," a point never mentioned in the preprint. "This is a classic research problem, and why it is always good to include skeptical voices on research teams," Prasad wrote, contrasting the Boston findings with differently designed studies in Finland and Spain that found no mask effect.

Epidemiologist Ellie Murray, a coauthor of the study, dismissed the criticism, arguing that masks keep children in school more often because they aren't required to test.

By that logic, "not testing at all fixes the issue altogether," responded Universita di Pavia professor Ioana Cristea, a research affiliate at Stanford Med's Meta-Research Information Center. 

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The study's corresponding author, Kathryn Hall, didn't respond to Just the News queries.

The mask study meta-analysis by Hofstra University medical researchers found more than 1,700 studies in the initial review but winnowed that down to 13 for their final analysis, covering 97 masked subjects and 146 non-masked who became infected. The probability of infection for the former was 7% and for the latter, 52%.

"Within less than 10 seconds of reading the abstract, it quickly becomes apparent that it falls well beneath the most basic standards of a systematic review," wrote Munro, a member of the COVID school transmission working group at the U.K. National Institute for Health Research.

The study authors didn't explain how they chose the 13 papers, only searched for papers between March and July 2020 yet inexplicably included a 2004 study, and misidentified a study on "powered, personal respirators" used in tracheostomies as an airplane-mask study, he wrote.

In several places the numbers don't align, and the authors don't describe "the methods of statistics used," Munro said. The study adds together "totally incomparable numerators and denominators" without adjusting for the "extraordinary number of confounders."

The preprint "would not pass as an undergraduate medical student assignment," he concluded, yet it was shared by Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett and an ex-director of the World Health Organization.

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Former Live Science executive John De Feo called out several prominent scientists and journalists for retweeting the preprint, including Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Stung by the blowback, Garrett clarified the study was a preprint and has "come under a good deal of attack on methodology grounds." The study's corresponding author, Joseph Cervia, didn't respond to queries.

Research questioning the safety of prolonged mask-wearing continues receiving scrutiny in a different direction. 

Twitter throttled a "misleading" tweet last week by the anti-lockdown Brownstone Institute promoting its article that theorizes mask-wearing may play a role in so-called "long COVID" symptoms. The company didn't respond to requests for an explanation.

"Increased exposure to microplastics, nanoparticles, chemicals in masks and nasopharyngeal tests parallel many of the symptoms that define Long Covid," Dutch entrepreneur and researcher Carla Peeters, who has a doctorate in immunology, wrote in a lengthy review of the research literature. 

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Research to date shows no biological explanation for long COVID, a small protective effect from vaccines, and faster clearance of mental than physical symptoms, "suggesting Long Covid could be related to pandemic measures rather than a viral infection," she said.

The most frequently used masks and nasopharyngeal tests come from China, "with less strict controls and measures for the presence of hazardous materials," and have been pulled from several countries, according to Peeters. 

She showed Just the News a Dutch Public Health Institute report from November 2021 and translated a section into English. It reads: "There is not yet enough information available to justify that masks which claim to be antibacterial or antiviral are safe. These masks contain nanosilver nanocupper, titaniumdioxide and/or graphene [sic]." 

In an earlier essay, Peeters pointed to research by Belgium's public health institute Sciensano, published in Nature, that found "the estimated titanium dioxide mass in 24 different single and reusable types of facemasks meant for the general public systemically exceeded the acceptable exposure level by inhalation when masks are worn intensively."

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