Molecular Biologist Dr. Sui Huang: We Should All Be Wearing Masks

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ISB Professor and molecular biologist Sui Huang, MD, PhD, is a powerful voice in a growing chorus contending that masks are an effective tool to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Professor Sui Huang, MD, PhD

Professor Sui Huang, MD, PhD, is a molecular biologist and faculty member at Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle.

“Masks are very important and effective. Even if you act out of fear and out of a sense to protect yourself, you actually also protect others. It’s a bidirectional protection.”

A growing number of experts say it is time to rethink official recommendations in the U.S. and other western countries to avoid wearing masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sui Huang, MD, PhD, is a molecular biologist and professor at Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle. Dr. Huang has been a powerful voice in a growing chorus contending that masks are an effective tool to stop the spread of COVID-19. Huang calls guidelines from the CDC and other public health agencies “unfortunate,” as they sweep aside a potentially powerful measure that could help “flatten the curve.”

Dr. Huang wrote a March 26 article (COVID-19: Why We Should All Wear Masks -- There Is New Scientific Rationale) that has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on Medium, and he has since discussed that rationale in a video Q&A.

“Masks are very important and effective,” Huang said. “Even if you act out of fear and out of a sense to protect yourself, you actually also protect others. It’s a bidirectional protection. We have a public incentive constellation that the CDC has missed.” 

Huang also cites data published this week in the journal Nature that shows the nose and throat is where the virus lands, where the body’s receptors for virus docking are, and where the virus replicates. This important discovery by a German group suggests that transmission occurs mostly via large droplets and less via those fine aerosols that can end up deep in the lung. Thus, even a surgery mask or do-it-yourself (DIY) cloth mask will act as an effective barrier, and higher-grade N95 masks aren’t needed to block the large spray droplets that come from the nasopharynx. (N95 masks filter out 95 percent of small airborne particles. They are necessary to block these tiny aerosolized droplets that reach the lower lungs, but are overkill for the larger droplets that originate from and land in the upper respiratory system.) 

If the “respiratory etiquette” of sneezing into your elbow is protective, then masks should be protective, Huang said. “Any physical barrier should be helpful,” he said. “When empirical evidence is lacking, we should trust measures based on common sense, plausible mechanisms -- especially when costs are minimal.”

Huang’s current research seeks to integrate big data with complex systems theory to better understand diseases. Systems biology integrates many disciplines -- from the molecular to the clinical level -- and offers perspectives often missed in most media interviews with epidemiologists and clinicians.

About ISB
Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) is a collaborative and cross-disciplinary non-profit biomedical research organization based in Seattle. We focus on some of the most pressing issues in human health, including brain health, cancer, sepsis and aging, as well as many chronic and infectious diseases. Our science is translational, and we champion sound scientific research that results in real-world clinical impacts. ISB is an affiliate of Providence St. Joseph Health, one of the largest not-for-profit health care systems in the United States.

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