Report on face masks' effectiveness for COVID-19 divides scientists

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To wear a mask or not to wear a mask?

That's the question that millions of Americans have been asking and will continue to as they navigate a patchwork of local, state and federal guidelines concerning proper behavior in public with coronavirus still spreading.

A new report from a multidisciplinary group convened by the U.K.'s Royal Society concludes that wearing face masks in public, even if they are homemade cloth ones or surgical masks, can help to reduce the deadly virus's spread.

“Our analysis suggests that their use could reduce onward transmission by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic wearers if widely used in situations where physical distancing is not possible or predictable, contrasting to the standard use of masks for the protection of wearers,” the report notes. “If correctly used on this basis, face masks, including homemade cloth masks, can contribute to reducing viral transmission.”

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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 06: A train conductor wears a protective mask while riding on a subway through the Fulton St. station on May 6, 2020 in Manhattan in New York City.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 06: A train conductor wears a protective mask while riding on a subway through the Fulton St. station on May 6, 2020 in Manhattan in New York City. (Getty Images)

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However, not everyone agrees with the report's conclusion.

Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told The Guardian that the report “falls short of delivering new evidence and too casually dismisses precautionary principle when addressing the possibility that masks and coverings could have negative effects on people’s behaviours.

“Until more evidence is delivered in either direction, that’s all advice can be based on – opinions,” he added.

Ben Killingley, consultant in acute medicine and infectious diseases at University College London hospital, also criticized the report.

“The report is overly optimistic about the value of face coverings and it is incorrect to conclude that the evidence shows that face covering can reduce viral transmission in the community,” he said. “There is in fact no good evidence that face coverings achieve this.”

For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes down on the side of the British report, in favor of masks and face coverings.

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CDC recommends "wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."