Surgical mask partition reduces the risk of non-contact transmission in a golden Syrian hamster model for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Clin Infect Dis. 2020 May 30;ciaa644. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa644. Online ahead of print.


Background: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is believed to be mostly transmitted by medium-to-large sized respiratory droplets although airborne transmission is theoretically possible in healthcare settings involving aerosol-generating procedures. Exposure to respiratory droplets can theoretically be reduced by surgical mask usage. However, there is a lack of experimental evidence supporting surgical mask usage for prevention of COVID-19.

Methods: We used a well-established golden Syrian hamster SARS-CoV-2 model. We placed SARS-CoV-2-challenged index hamsters and naïve hamsters into closed system units each comprising two different cages separated by a polyvinyl chloride air porous partition with unidirectional airflow within the isolator. The effect of a surgical mask partition placed in between the cages was investigated. Besides clinical scoring, hamster specimens were tested for viral load, histopathology, and viral nucleocapsid antigen expression.

Results: Non-contact transmission was found in 66.7% (10/15) of exposed naïve hamsters. Surgical mask partition for challenged index or naïve hamsters significantly reduced transmission to 25% (6/24, P=0.018). Surgical mask partition for challenged index hamsters significantly reduced transmission to only 16.7% (2/12, P=0.019) of exposed naïve hamsters. Unlike the severe COVID-19 manifestations of challenged hamsters, infected naïve hamsters had lower clinical scores, milder histopathological changes, and lower viral nucleocapsid antigen expression in respiratory tract tissues.

Conclusions: SARS-CoV-2 could be transmitted by respiratory droplets or airborne droplet nuclei in the hamster model. Such transmission could be reduced by surgical mask usage, especially when masks were worn by infected individuals.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; coronavirus; mask; transmission.