Masks are medicine.
Can we talk about that?
Most medicines we take work by blocking something. Drugs that do this are called “inhibitors.” What they inhibit are processes that have negative effects like an allergic reaction (histamine cascade). Some drugs can slow or stop a virus from reproducing.
Inhibitors can work in different ways, but the most basic way is to act as a physical barrier, preventing something from entering or attaching to a place in the body. Masks do this mechanically. By putting a physical barrier between the virus and the body it needs to enter to reproduce itself. The skin works this way too. Pretty remarkable natural barrier. But when it is compromised by a cut or scrape, we give it a bit of help in the form of a bandage. A barrier.
Masks work for COVID-19 because the viral RNA can’t travel by itself. It needs a big moist droplet as a vehicle to get into a human body. Like a shuttle. A mask works like a gate that is too big for the shuttle to pass through.
We will likely have more therapeutic choices for treating COVID-19 in the future. They will work as barriers too, at different entry points into cells. Some might work by binding to the viral protein itself and changing its shape so that it doesn’t fit into the “gateway” that it uses to enter a cell. This is like changing the shape of the shuttle so that it can no longer go through the gate.
One thing I’ve been thinking about is that it will be a long time before any of these barriers will likely be as simple or easy or effective as masks.
If you don’t think twice about putting a band-aid on a cut, taking an antihistamine during allergy season or an NSAID to stop a headache, you can feel the same way about wearing a mask. You are in each case using an inhibitor to help your immune system out.