People are being urged not to be complacent as a number of COVID-19 rules change this week. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS

COVID-19 face mask study findings misinterpreted online

Tom Wark June 13, 2024

A study found face masks did not help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and even increased the chances of getting infected.


Misleading. The study found wearing masks reduced the risk of infection in the early stages of the pandemic but became less effective after Omicron.

AAP FACTCHECK – A study supposedly shows face masks were ineffective in reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection and even increased people’s chances of catching the virus, social media users claim.

This is misleading. The study in question found masks reduced transmission risk in the early phases of the pandemic, but their effectiveness waned after the Omicron variant became dominant.

The misleading claim is being spread by two known misinformation publishers: The People’s Voice and Natural News.

Facebook posts linking to the articles or replicating their text have been shared widely.

“A new study has found that face masks were not only ineffective at reducing the risk of infection from COVID, they are (sic) actually made people more susceptible to respiratory illnesses,” The People’s Voice article claims.

“According to researchers at the University of East Anglia, mask wearing was associated with an even more rapid spread of Covid compared to non-mask wearing individuals.”

The article references a peer-reviewed paper published by researchers from the University of East Anglia on May 15, 2024.

The authors reviewed the UK Office of National Statistics Infection Survey estimates of the likelihood of people testing positive between November 21, 2021 and May 7, 2022.

Lead author Professor Paul Hunter tells AAP FactCheck the claim is a “misrepresentation of our findings”.

Signage reminding train passengers to wear masks, January 2022.
 Evidence shows masks did reduce COVID transmission risk in the early phases of the pandemic. 

The review of the survey data from more than 200,000 people showed wearing masks reduced the chances of testing positive in the earlier stages of the pandemic.

“Prior to Omicron BA.2, never wearing a mask was associated with an increased risk of around 30% in adults and 10% in children,” the study found.

Prof Hunter says this is in line with a May 2022 study that found mask-wearing was associated with a 19 per cent reduction in transmission, on average.

However, the emergence of the highly infectious Omicron variant (and the even more infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-variant) reduced the effect of masks on transmission.

The claims online appear to be based on this finding in the 2024 paper: “By the second Omicron wave (mid to late February 2022 onwards) there was no protective effect from mask wearing in adults and possibly an increased risk of infection in children”.

Prof Hunter says that’s not surprising.

Firstly, he says, for children always wearing a face mask at school before Omicron “was much less effective.”

What’s more, masks became less effective after the arrival of Omicron as more people became infected.

“Over time people who never wear masks will get infected with a higher probability than those who do wear masks, but will then be immune at least for a while,” Prof Hunter told AAP FactCheck.

“So over time people who don’t wear masks will have a higher immunity. At some point the balance shifts and the lower immunity in mask wearers pushes up risk and any benefit disappears.”

“No workable intervention by itself can reduce risk to zero.”

Person being vaccinated against COVID-19 in Brisbane, October 2021.
 Never wearing a mask was initially associated with a 30 per cent higher infection risk in adults. 

He adds that “non-pharmaceutical” measures like mask-wearing and school closures are only ever of temporary use.

The 2024 paper states: “That non pharmaceutical interventions have value primarily in the early stages of a pandemic is something that has been known for some time”.

“Their value lies largely in delaying most people’s infections until a suitable vaccine becomes available.”

Prof Hunter says mask-wearing was still worthwhile early on in the pandemic.

“On balance, mask wearing was an essential component in our defence against COVID-19 that in combination with other [measures] delayed most people’s first infections until they had received their first doses of vaccine,” he adds.

The Verdict

The claim that a study found face masks did not help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and even increased the chances of getting infected is misleading.

The study showed masks reduced transmission risk in the early phase of the pandemic, but their value declined after the Omicron variant took hold.

The study’s lead author told AAP FactCheck that masks were an essential component of COVID-19 prevention strategies.

Misleading – The claim is accurate in parts but information has also been presented incorrectly, out of context or omitted.

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