In the past 6 months, scientists and researchers across the globe have made astonishing progress in advancing the development of vaccines for COVID-19. We are also getting much closer to finding effective treatment options.
In clinical development terms, the pace of these efforts is unprecedented, with multiple promising vaccine candidates in or near the final phases of human trials. But experts seem to agree that even with these drastically condensed timelines, the soonest realistic date by which a vaccine could become widely available is mid-2021. And this assumes that one of the current generation of vaccine candidates proves to be successful.
Every day counts, and in the absence of a vaccine or proven treatment, the coronavirus has already claimed the lives of more than 660,000 people. Without diagnostic tests, the number of deaths would certainly be far higher.
Why? Because the one thing we can do right now is to prevent people from getting infected in the first place.
As the cornerstone of the test-trace-isolate approach that breaks the chain of transmission, tests are fundamental to the COVID-19 response, and they will be equally important to ensure we can deploy treatments and vaccines as soon as we have them. Yet within testing, there remains many unmet needs, especially in low- and middle-income countries with fragile health systems. Today there is no simple, accurate and affordable rapid test for COVID-19 that can be administered without expensive and complex laboratory facilities – and we’re working hard to fix that. Even in relatively well-resourced countries, not everyone who needs a test can get one, and there are often long waits for test results to come back.
Access to testing should not depend on where you live, and whether your country is winning the “supply chain war”.
While tests, treatments and vaccines depend on billions of dollars of investment, scientific expertise, public health policy and other proven public-health control measures are a lot closer to home and can be implemented by everyone. Physical distancing, regular hand washing and mask wearing are making a quantifiable difference.
This week (7–14 August 2020) is World Mask Week. While the wearing of masks has in some cases become controversial, the evidence proving their efficacy in preventing transmission of COVID-19 is mounting, leading over 130 countries to now have mandatory mask policies requiring everyone to wear a cloth or disposable surgical mask in public places, such as on public transport and in shops.
SARS-CoV-2 viral load peaks in the days before symptoms begin, and just talking is enough to emit droplets or aerosols containing virus particles. Strong evidence from real-world epidemiological studies indicates that the COVID-19 daily infection rate is significantly slowed in places where there is a mandate to wear masks. Masks have also been shown to prevent transmission from an infected wearer – one real-world example is two hairdressers in Missouri, USA, who saw 140 clients while they were both sick with COVID-19. Everyone wore masks, and none of the clients became infected. A simulation study indicated that 80% of people wearing masks would do more to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 than a strict lockdown.
The #MaskingForAFriend campaign highlights the point that “my mask protects you, your mask protects me”. It was conceived to inspire more people to wear face coverings to help stop the spread of COVID-19. This was especially for settings where physical distancing may be difficult or even impossible, and lack of access to tests is challenging the effective implementation of test-trace-isolate strategies.
Everyone is at risk for COVID-19, and we all have a part to play in saving lives. Preserving life cannot be achieved by health research and politicians’ decisions alone – there is a massive human equation between what governments and health services are responsible for (test-trace-isolate, quality of healthcare services), and what the general public is responsible for (masks, hand hygiene and social distancing).
Yes, we desperately need effective vaccines, proven treatments and better tests. But the road to those is long, and until then millions of lives are at risk. Wearing masks is not a magic bullet but – like reliable, accessible and affordable tests – they are a critical piece of the puzzle facing us now. Any mask will reduce the risk to you, and to those around you. Spread the word for World Mask Week to save lives.
World Mask Week is 7–14 August 2020, coordinated by the Pandemic Action Network.
Author: Catharina Boehme, CEO of FIND.
Competing interests: Catharina Boehme is employed by FIND. FIND is co-convener of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator Diagnostics Pillar, and a member of the Pandemic Action Network.