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  • 1 January 2022 to 30 June 2022
  • Project No: 586
  • Funding round: FR3

Does wearing a face mask reduce our risk of infections like colds, flu and COVID-19? The evidence that suggests they do comes mainly from observational studies. But these studies can only tell us that wearing a mask is associated with fewer infections. They cannot tell us if face masks are the reason why there are fewer infections. The best way to find out if face masks protect us from infections is to do a study in which people are asked, at random, to wear a face mask or not and measure the number of infections in both groups. We would like to apply for funding to do such a study in people in whom we know such infections are common; in which the place we ask them to wear masks is the place where infections are most likely to spread; and in people who can agree to take part or not without involving a parent/guardian. It is for these reasons we would like to do this study in young people who are 16+ years old. But before we do, we need to answer some questions about the best way to do this study.

Our first question is ‘what is the best way to get young people involved?’. We are particularly keen to know how to (i) encourage them to take part; (ii) wear masks if they are in the group asked to wear masks; and (iii) provide saliva samples so we can measure infections. We will run focus groups with young people, their teachers and parents to understand their views on these three issues and what might encourage or deter them. We will use this information to design materials and develop techniques that will encourage schools and young people to take part, wear masks and provide saliva samples. We will then ask a smaller group of young people and teachers to review our ideas and, if needed, suggest further changes. We will keep on making changes until our young people and teachers feel confident that our approach is likely to work.

Our second question is ‘can we measure multiple infections in a way that is easy and not uncomfortable?’. We have already developed a very accurate test for measuring COVID-19 which only requires a small sample of saliva which is collected through a straw placed in a tube. We want to change this test so that it can pick up COVID-19 and other infections too. To do this we will collect saliva samples from approximately 200 people who attend their GP with cold and flu-like symptoms. We will then make changes to our original test to ensure it can pick up other viruses with the same accuracy that it can pick up COVID-19.

Our third question is ‘how feasible would it be to run a study using our new methods?’. To test this we will recruit 2 schools and invite all year 12 pupils to be part of a study in which they are asked to wear face masks at school for a 6 week period or not. It will be decided at random which school’s pupils will be asked to wear masks and which will not. Pupils in both schools will also be asked to provide a saliva sample once a week for 6 weeks. We will find out how well our approach worked by recording information such as: how many pupils agreed to take part; how many wore masks and for how long and how many saliva samples were returned.

Answering these 3 questions will help us to design a good quality trial which can tell us whether or not face masks reduce the risk of these infections. And while our focus is on young people, the findings will be relevant to other groups in whom it is important to reduce the risk of infections like COVID-19, flu etc.

Amount Awarded: £81,184

Projects by themes

We have grouped projects under the five SPCR themes in this document

Evidence synthesis working group

The collaboration will be conducting 18 high impact systematic reviews, under four workstreams.