The latest strain of coronavirus has caused global panic, especially as it continues to spread after the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. People around the world are looking for ways to protect themselves from the disease, known formally as COVID-19, with surgical masks being the most popular option. However, demand has risen exponentially and there is now a global shortage as manufacturers struggle to maintain high production levels. It doesn’t help that China is the world’s largest producer of medical facial masks, forcing individuals and businesses to look elsewhere for the protective gear.

Medicom’s French factory, based just outside Angers, has increased their production to seven days a week in order to keep up with the demand for face masks in China. Meanwhile, Foxconn, the makers of Apple’s iPhone, has switched part of its production line to the manufacture of these surgical masks in order to ease the pressure from other plants. While this sounds like a noble idea, it may not be so practical, or even beneficial, for more businesses to follow suit.

Medical devices take time to produce

Surgical masks are actually considered medical devices, so extra care needs to be taken throughout the production period. With the current case of coronavirus, these masks are highly likely to be shipped around the world for both professional and personal use, so getting the labelling right, and translating it correctly for international markets, is crucial. It’s not enough to have more devices made if people can’t understand the labels which instruct them on exactly how they should be used. As explained by translation experts London Translations, each country — as well as different regions within some countries — has its own requirements for medical device labelling, which can make it even more difficult to get the details and nuances of the language right.

Companies who may be considering the manufacturing surgical masks will need to take production steps into consideration as well as the labelling and translation. It’s also crucial that legal teams are consulted to make sure that each country’s unique legislation is complied with. This can take time, and must be completed before the devices are approved in the first place, which won’t immediately help the surgical mask shortage crisis either. For companies to make a significant, immediate impact, they will need to have the masks, packaging, and labelling ready to go as soon as possible.

Surgical masks aren’t completely effective

For years, surgical masks have been popular accessories for some people when travelling by public transport, especially during flu season, but their use has never been particularly widespread. Surgical masks are primarily used to protect the wearer from catching and spreading the virus. As explained by Sherif Mossad, MD, flu is airborne, so it’s spread by droplets in the air. A surgical mask works to “mechanically prevent the flu virus from reaching other people” in the event that the wearer has the virus, as well as stopping them from breathing in the virus in the air around them. While it’s not always possible to identify when, where, and how a virus-like COVID-19 has been caught, a surgical mask may work to decrease the chances of falling ill, especially in crowded cities.

 

However, many doctors are admitting that these masks aren’t actually effective in controlling the spread of a virus. As Dr Nathalie MacDermott from King’s College London noted to Sky News, the loose-fitting surgical masks “are not designed with a very decent filter on them, so they’re not able to really filter out finer particles such as viruses”. She explained: “We breathe out humidified air which essentially moistens the mask over time and once that mask becomes moist, it’s really no longer very effective.” It’s for this reason that surgical masks need to be replaced every few hours through the day, as well as whenever they’re removed to eat, which only boosts demand for each person.

Respirators are more effective for tiny particles

The most common form of respirator is the N95 respirator, which is like a surgical mask with much more structure. The N95 is named for its ability to prevent at least 95% of tiny particles from entering the mouth or nose, which is much more than a surgical mask. These are a little more difficult to put on, as the wearer will need them in the right size, and will then have to mould the metal strip to the bridge of their nose to prevent any leaks from occurring. However, once it’s been fitted, the mask shouldn’t leave any gaps through which tiny particles can enter, making it effective at keeping viruses at bay.

These masks are only really suited to adults without significant facial hair. Children are unable to fit into them, and beards may stop them from fitting snugly enough around the mouth. N95 respirators are also single-use, like surgical masks, so extra care must be taken to ensure that they fit correctly. It can sometimes be difficult for the wearer to breathe properly with an N95 respirator, which can be dangerous for anyone who already shows symptoms of coronavirus, such as shortness of breath or coughing.

As with surgical masks, some N95 respirators are considered medical devices, so will need to go through the same tough tests in order to be legally sold around the world. However, most are manufactured for use in construction or other industrial jobs that expose workers to dust particles. In these circumstances, they are not considered medical devices, and should be labelled as being “for occupational use”.

Alternatives to protecting against the coronavirus

At the time of writing, there is no known cure to COVID-19, so the public is urged to practice good hygiene as the best course of prevention. This includes washing hands as often as necessary, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Those who are showing symptoms of any virus should see a doctor for an official diagnosis. The World Health Organization (WHO) also suggests coughing and sneezing should be covered by a bent elbow or a clean tissue — which must then be immediately and safely discarded — rather than a hand. It’s also suggested that unaffected individuals should keep at least 1 metre—3 feet—distance from anyone showing signs of the flu.

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