With province’s support, U of T researchers to explore key questions about masks and COVID-19

University of Toronto researchers are breaking new ground in determining the effectiveness of face masks against COVID-19.

The Ontario government is providing $1.2 million in support for equipment that measures filtration much more accurately, allowing next-generation testing of masks to be performed at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The researchers will be among the first academics in the world to explore the flow of coronavirus-scale particles against masks in two directions – both to and from the person wearing the mask. By contrast, standard testing measures filtration in only one direction.

Calling the investment “money well spent,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the U of T funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) testing, along with an equal sum to McMaster University, during a virtual event Tuesday. He was joined by: Victor Fedeli, minister of economic development, job creation and trade; Ross Romano, minister of colleges and universities; Donna Skelly, a member of provincial parliament for Flamborough-Glanbrook; U of T President Meric Gertler and McMaster President David Farrar.

“From the earliest days of the pandemic, Ontario’s innovation and manufacturing might was unleashed to develop and produce the PPE, the ventilators and the other essential equipment we would need to face the challenge of COVID-19,” said Fedeli.

“With this investment into research and testing at two of our leading universities, we are reinforcing our province’s reputation as the gold standard for medical equipment across Canada and around the world.”

Occupational and environmental health researchers at Dalla Lana have been evaluating the effectiveness of masks since the start of the pandemic. The team drives better mask design with high-quality, low-cost standard testing for the health-care and innovation sectors.

Yet, more than a year into the pandemic, many questions about the effectiveness of face masks remain unanswered – particularly around the optimal design of non-medical masks to maximize effectiveness and the impact of reusing medical masks on their continued function.

Access to both reliable standard testing and novel approaches will help guide public health policy to keep health workers and the public safer.

“The scientific literature has been silent on many basic questions about mask performance,” said James Scott, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health who is leading the research as head of the school’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Health. “This generous support will allow us to provide access to standard testing as well as develop novel ways to measure mask performance. It could influence mask design and how we reuse masks.”

Scott has been a world leader in mask testing since 2006, when he began researching the biophysical properties of aerosols in the wake of the SARS crisis. Over the years, his lab at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health built capacity to sample aerosols, test various masks and even develop some of the equipment necessary to do so.

When COVID emerged, Scott tested thousands of masks for hospitals – both for efficacy and for reuse potential – and even tested home-sewn masks developed by community innovators. The prohibitive cost of commercial testing meant that without Scott’s service, many masks would have gone to waste during the early months of the pandemic when PPE was in critically short supply. Scott also helped keep subpar masks out of health-care use.

Now, with the support of the Ontario government, Scott will be able to more than double his testing capacity and answer critical questions about mask efficacy.

Such developments are “a significant step in meeting future needs,” said President Gertler. “As a result, the province will be better equipped to respond immediately and effectively to public health emergencies in the years to come. And our manufacturers will be in a stronger position to compete and lead on the world stage, creating jobs and prosperity here at home.”

The funding comes from the Ontario Together Fund through the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade. The provincial government is using the fund to make targeted investments that will increase the province’s stockpile of made-in-Ontario products and PPE. The new manufacturing and research capacity promises to help the province combat the current COVID-19 outbreak and prepare for potential challenges in the future – all while supporting local businesses during the safe and gradual reopening of the province.

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