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Behind the masks, a mystery: How often do the vaccinated spread the virus?

  • Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times Company
    Published: 2021-07-30 12:14:10 BdST

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Illustration of surgical masks and the covid green pass. Photograph by Jacopo Landi / Hans Lucas. France, Paris, 2021/07/28 via REUTERS

The recommendation that vaccinated people in some parts of the country dust off their masks was based largely on one troublesome finding, according to Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

New research showed that vaccinated people infected with the delta variant carry tremendous amounts of the virus in the nose and throat, she said in an email responding to questions from The New York Times.

The finding contradicts what scientists had observed in vaccinated people infected with previous versions of the virus, who mostly seemed incapable of infecting others.

That conclusion dealt Americans a heavy blow: People with so-called breakthrough infections — cases that occur despite full vaccination — of the delta variant may be just as contagious as unvaccinated people, even if they have no symptoms.

That means fully immunised people will need to renew vigilance, particularly in high-transmission communities. Vaccinated Americans may need to wear masks not just to protect themselves, but everyone in their orbit.

The CDC has not yet published its data, frustrating experts who want to understand the basis for the change of heart on masks. Four scientists familiar with the research said it was compelling and justified the CDC’s advice that the vaccinated wear masks again in public indoor spaces. The research was conducted by people outside the CDC, the scientists said, and the agency is working quickly to analyze and publish the results.

It’s still unclear how common breakthrough infections are and how long the virus persists in the body in those cases. Breakthroughs are rare, and unvaccinated people account for the bulk of virus transmission, Walensky said. Regardless, the data that the CDC is reviewing suggest that even fully immunised people can be unwilling vectors for the virus.

“We believe at the individual level they might, which is why we updated our recommendation,” Walensky said in her email to The Times.

The new data do not mean that the vaccines are ineffective. The vaccines still powerfully prevent severe illness and death, as they were meant to, and people with breakthrough infections very rarely end up in a hospital.

© 2021 The New York Times Company