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Researchers tested 14 types of masks — some worked great, some might be worse than useless

It’s become clear that not all masks are created equal – in fact, some masks are useless or worse when it comes to preventing person-to-person transmission.

Elias Marat

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(TMU) – In the strange “new normal” of the coronavirus era, protective face coverings have become a new staple of our daily wardrobe, as essential as underwear and crucial in helping to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic – especially as economies increasingly reopen.

Because of the heightened demand for masks, online marketplaces and retailers are offering myriad options including cotton and neoprene masks, disposable or reusable options, and masks with valves and filters.

And while it has been months since public health bodies issued guidance urging U.S. residents to always wear a cloth face covering in public, it’s become clear that not all masks are created equal – in fact, some masks are useless or worse when it comes to preventing person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

According to a new study from scientists at Duke University’s School of Medicine comparing 14 types of masks, facial coverings like gaiters, bandanas and knitted masks are among the worst face coverings for preventing the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, the gold standard for preventing the transmission of respiratory droplets during normal speech remains fitted N95 respirator masks used by health care professionals.

Other good options to help reduce the risk of saliva-related transmission are three-layer surgical masks and cotton masks, either of the homemade sort or those sold by retailers, the Duke physics department found.

For the study, researchers used a simple setup utilizing a laser beam and a cell phone camera that gauged the efficiency of masks by analyzing the spread of respiratory droplets during regular speech. A computer algorithm then counts the droplets in the video recording.

“We use a black box, a laser, and a camera,” study co-author Martin Fischer told CNN. “The laser beam is expanded vertically to form a thin sheet of light, which we shine through slits on the left and right of the box.”

While bandanas might look neat and allow you to flex your gangsta cosplay skills, they are nearly useless in terms of offering protection – and the same goes for that nice knitted mask your grandma made for you.

In the case of neck fleeces or gaiter scarves, which are usually worn by runners and bikers – as well as your favorite Major League Baseball players – not only are these totally ineffective but they actually might boost the spread of respiratory droplets, making gaiters worse than going without a mask entirely, the researchers warned.

This was because the material in fleeces or gaiter masks break larger droplets down into smaller ones. Rather than the droplets falling to the ground, as they would without a mask, the smaller particles of spittle float through the air easier, the scientists said.

“We were extremely surprised to find that the number of particles measured with the fleece actually exceeded the number of particles measured without wearing any mask,” Fischer noted.

“We want to emphasize that we really encourage people to wear masks, but we want them to wear masks that actually work.”

While some have recommended gauging the efficacy of masks through methods such as the “candle test” or the “lighter test,” the simple setup used by Duke is a low-cost, effective testing method.

However, the researchers are not recommending that people unfamiliar with lasers set these tests up at home due to the danger of permanent eye damage. Instead, they hope that companies, museums, and community centers can use the test to show people which masks work best.

“This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets,” Fischer said.

The researchers were careful to note, however, that results vary and their test was not a definitive test of the masks themselves.

Again, we want to note that the mask tests performed here (one speaker for all masks and four speakers for selected masks) should serve only as a demonstration,” they said. “Inter-subject variations are to be expected, for example due to difference in physiology, mask fit, head position, speech pattern, and such.”

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‘We Are Going To Have Famines of Biblical Proportions in 2021,’ UN Food Agency Warns

Elias Marat

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The head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has delivered a stark message to the world: huge populations across the globe are facing severe “famines of biblical proportions” in the near future due to the coronavirus pandemic.

WFP head David Beasley has warned for the past several months that due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdowns, nations in the developing world are faced with devastating famine and mass starvation unless action is finally taken.

However, with countries in the developed Global North facing their own budget crises and sharp economic downturns due to the ongoing health emergency, funding for the WFP that was previously available to help alleviate hunger and avert global famine won’t be available in 2021.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Beasley noted that his agency’s staffers regularly risk their lives feeding millions of hungry people in refugee camps, conflict zones, and the sites of natural disasters, but the current global crisis makes it important for him  to send “a message to the world that it’s getting worse out there … (and) that our hardest work is yet to come.”

In April, Beasley delivered a similarly urgent message to the U.N. Security Council, where he remarked that despite the breakout of the coronavirus pandemic, the world also stood  “on the brink of a hunger pandemic” that could see “multiple famines of biblical proportions” within months if critical action wasn’t taken.

And with the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020 being awarded to the World Food Program last month for its vital work providing alleviating mass hunger and boosting food security in conflict zones, Beasley has been struggling to use the win to break through the news cycle and remind people of “the travesty that we’re facing around the world.”

“We were able to avert [famine] in 2020,” Beasley said, adding that the WFP needs further funding or “we are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021.” 

The agency is currently hoping that it can get an additional $15 billion for the next year to deal with the growing scope of the crisis.

“If I could get that coupled with our normal money, then we avert famine around the world,” he said. 

World leaders must be prepared for the looming disaster as well as the critical role the WFP plays. As the organization says: “Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos.”

In April, Beasley warned that about 135 million people faced “crisis levels of hunger or worse” in 2020 and that the number could rise by 130 million may be pushed to the brink of starvation by next year. However, on Wednesday he told AP that the number of people facing severe, crisis-level hunger had already risen to 270 million.

He added that three dozen countries could experience critical levels of hunger or famine if the WFP isn’t given the funding it requires.

According to a joint analysis by WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, these countries include Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lebanon, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somali, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Yemen.

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Researchers: Microbots Will Soon Enter Human Colons to Deliver Medical Payloads

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Calling it “rough terrain,” a team of researchers at Purdue University is exploring the insides of a living colon like never before, using microscopic robots the width of a few follicles of hair. Perhaps most incredibly, the anal bots require no batteries and are powered via an external electromagnetic field.

Scientists have long believed the use of microbots (and perhaps someday even nanotechnology) inside the human body could bring about a revolution in medical diagnostic abilities and drug delivery. Mechanical engineers at Purdue believe they have passed a critical first test in this journey by creating tiny robots that are controlled remotely and can efficiently deliver a payload without inflaming any tissue reactions in the notoriously sensitive colonic region.

Biomeedical engineer Luis Solorio described one of the challenges the team faced:

“Moving a robot around the colon is like using the people-walker at an airport to get to a terminal faster. Not only is the floor moving, but also the people around you. In the colon, you have all these fluids and materials that are following along the path, but the robot is moving in the opposite direction. It’s just not an easy voyage.”

Mechanical engineer David Cappelleri, also from Purdue, says the tiny robot is controlled magnetically while being monitored through ultrasound imaging.

“When we apply a rotating external magnetic field to these robots, they rotate just like a car tire would to go over rough terrain. The magnetic field also safely penetrates different types of mediums, which is important for using these robots in the human body.”

So far, the team has experimented only on live anesthetized mice and pig colons. Scaling up could be a challenge, says associate professor Craig Goergen, who points out that while the colon is a good entry point for this type of microscopic robotic research, the terrain can present some tough sledding.

“Moving up to large animals or humans may require dozens of robots, but that also means you can target multiple sites with multiple drug payloads.”

As outlined in the team’s paper, which was published in Micromachines, tests on payload delivery involved the microbots being marked with fluorescein dye in a saline vial; they imitated drug delivery mechanisms by steadily dispatching the dye over a period of time. These tests were conducted outside of the mice and pig colons.

The researchers say the tiny robots are expelled from the body via regular waste elimination. While the research is promising, scientists say coordinating multiple microbots for use inside a human body is still years off. However, the implications for such a procedure are huge.

“From a diagnostic perspective, these microrobots might prevent the need for minimally invasive colonoscopies by helping to collect tissue,” adds Goergen. “Or they could deliver payloads without having to do the prep work that’s needed for traditional colonoscopies.”

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Scientists Genetically Engineer Meat With Plant Nutrients

Justin MacLachlan

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Researchers at Tufts University have created a way for health-conscious meat lovers to get plant nutrients when chowing down on a juicy steak. The landmark historic study was published in the journal Metabolic Engineering. The scientists genetically engineered cow muscle cells to produce the same nutrients found in plants, including beta carotene.

“Cows don’t have any of the genes for producing beta carotene,” says lead author Andrew Stout in a press release. “We engineered cow muscle cells to produce this and other phytonutrients, which in turn allows us to impart those nutritional benefits directly onto a cultured meat product in a way that is likely infeasible through animal transgenics and conventional meat production.”

The study authors also discovered that through this process there was a lack of cancer-causing agents in the meat. “We saw a reduction in lipid oxidation levels when we cooked a small pellet of these cells when they were expressing and producing this beta carotene,” Stout reports.

Stout says that there is a compelling argument that genetically modified meat with plant proteins could reduce the risk of cancer. “I think that there is a pretty compelling argument to be made that this could potentially reduce that risk.”

It’s important to note the researchers didn’t slaughter cows, instead they cultured meat, which is created by harvesting muscle cells from living cows. Because of this process, the group argues that they face one obstacle when it comes to putting the nutritious genetically modified meat on everyone’s plate, the cost.

“It will likely be challenging for cultured meat to be competitively priced with factory-farmed meat right out of the gate,” Stern Family Professor of Engineering David Kaplan says. “A value-added product which provides consumers with added health benefits may make them more willing to pay for a cultured meat product.”

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