An old image purported to be an official document of the WHO has been in circulation on social media for over a year. The image is dated 5th June 2020 and titled “COVID peer-reviewed research paper”.
The claims in the image are as following:
“At present, there is no direct evidence (from studies on COVID-19 and in healthy people in the community) “on the effectiveness of universal masking of healthy people to prevent infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19 (63).”
“One study that evaluated the use of cloth masks in a health care facility found that health care worker health care workers using cotton cloth masks were at an increased risk of influenza-like illness compared with those who wore medical masks (52).”
“The widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high Quality or direct scientific evidence.” Wearing a mask may provide the general public “a false sense of security, leading to lower adherence to other critical preventative measures.”
“A recent study of 455 individuals showed that asymptomatic people are not causing infectivity.”
We received a request on our WhatsApp helpline to verify the claims in the image.
We reached out to WHO to verify the claims of the image. In an email conversation, the media relations representative of WHO confirmed to us that the claims are from “non-WHO sources” like PLOS ONE and BMJ. We verified that the first two claims are cited from these two journals. The representative also said in the email, “anyone can have access to WHO’s logo and put it on a piece of paper. And just because there’s a list of sources under a WHO logo, that doesn’t mean that WHO endorses the research.”
We also independently tried to verify all four claims:
The first claim is misleading. The source for the first claim cited in the viral image is PLOS ONE study published in the year 2012 with the title “Facemasks, Hand Hygiene, and Influenza among Young Adults: A Randomized Intervention Trial.” The study was conducted during the time period of 2007–2008 for influenza and not for the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the study found wearing face masks, and practising increased hand hygiene control the rate of influenza-like illness.
The second claim is true. The source for the second claim cited in the viral image is a 2015 study published in the BMJ journals titled “A cluster randomized trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workers.” The study found that health workers wearing only cloth masks had a higher rate of infection. However, the journal published a special note on 30th March 2020 titled “COVID-19, shortages of masks and the use of cloth masks as a last resort” The point to be noted here is cloth mask is the last resort in case of the critical shortage of respirators and surgical mask and the journal advises their “research does not condone health workers working unprotected.”
The third claim has been twisted by cherry-picking words from the WHO documents to misconstrue overall interpretation. WHO in updated guidelines on wearing masking published on 1st December 2020 clearly states, “The use of masks as a part of a comprehensive package of prevention and control measures to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The fourth claim is a study done by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information titled “A study on infectivity of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 carriers” However, a team of researcher has raised questions on the methodology of the study. They wrote a letter to the editor of the NCBI: “The authors should have taken steps to ensure that their findings not be misconstrued as ‘proof’ that SARS-CoV2 is poorly, or non-, infective.”
The viral image is not a research document of WHO. WHO has also confirmed to France-based fact-check website AFP, “This is not a WHO document, but whoever has created it has cherry-picked some materials out of context from some WHO documents.”