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Study on mask ineffectiveness is not a ‘Stanford study’ and lacks credibility

Beyond misrepresenting the author’s affiliation, the paper published to a journal for “radical new ideas and speculation” misrepresents its citations.
Credit: candy1812 - stock.adobe.com

Since the Centers for Disease Control first recommended the use of face masks to the general public in April 2020, there has been pushback by various people and public figures to their widespread acceptance.

Recently, some of those pushing back against masks have claimed they have the support of Stanford and the National Institute of Health in the form of a study that claims masks are ineffective at stopping the spread of COVID-19 and can actually be harmful.

THE QUESTION

Did a study backed by Stanford and the National Institute of Health find masks are ineffective at stopping COVID-19 and can in fact be harmful?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, the paper in question is not backed by Stanford University or the NIH, nor does it prove masks don’t work.

WHAT WE FOUND

The article that’s being referred to is called “Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis” and was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses. The article’s lone author is Baruch Vainshelboim, and his author information claims he is in the cardiology division of the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System at Stanford University. The paper can be found on the NIH website.

But Vainshelboim’s biography is inaccurate and neither Stanford nor the NIH endorse the article.

“Stanford Medicine strongly supports the use of face masks to control the spread of COVID-19,” a statement Stanford Medicine posted to Twitter began. “A study on the efficacy of face masks against COVID-19 published in the November 2020 issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses is not a ‘Stanford study.’” The university clarified Vainshelboim has had no affiliation with Stanford since 2016.

Where Vainshelboim works right now is unclear. His ResearchGate profile says he’s affiliated with the Pulmonary Institute at the Rabin Medical Center in Israel and older studies posted to PubMed on NIH list the Rabin Medical Center as his affiliation. No employer is currently publicly listed on his LinkedIn page, which says he is a clinical exercise physiologist.

And just because the article can be found on the NIH website doesn’t mean it’s actually endorsed by the NIH. A disclaimer link on the article says the “NLM [National Library of Medicine] does not judge the quality of individual articles and relies on the scientific publishing process to identify and address problems through published comments, corrections, and retractions… The presence of an article in PMC does not reflect an endorsement of, or concurrence with, the contents of the article by NLM.”

PubMed Central is the database of medical literature found on the NIH website. This database includes citations to over 5,000 medical journals, including the Medical Hypotheses journal Vainshelboim’s article was published in.

“Medical Hypotheses was therefore launched, and still exists today, to give novel, radical new ideas and speculations in medicine open-minded consideration, opening the field to radical hypotheses which would be rejected by most conventional journals,” the journal’s description says.

The peer review process for Medical Hypotheses isn’t the same as a typical scientific journal because of this. “Submitted manuscripts will be reviewed by the Editor and external reviewers to ensure their scientific merit,” the journal explains in its aims and scope. “All reviewers will be fully aware of the Aims and Scope of the Journal and will be judging the premise, originality and plausibility of the hypotheses submitted.”

So this paper was not endorsed by or affiliated with Stanford University, and while it’s listed in PubMed it isn’t endorsed by the NIH. 

But what about the actual content of the paper? Does it prove masks are ineffective?

The paper itself is not a study offering new research, but in the words of its own abstract “summarizes scientific evidences [sic] with respect to wearing facemasks in the COVID-19 era.” The conclusions made by the author are drawn from pre-existing research and studies.

One of the main claims in Vainshelboim’s paper is that masks can be harmful by trapping and forcing you to breathe high levels of carbon dioxide. But this theory has been frequently debunked and even the CDC addresses the claim in its latest mask guidelines page

“A cloth mask does not provide an airtight fit across the face. The CO2 completely escapes into the air through the cloth mask when you breathe out or talk. CO2 molecules are small enough to easily pass through any cloth mask material. In contrast, the respiratory droplets that carry the virus that causes COVID-19 are much larger than CO2, so they cannot pass as easily through a properly designed and properly worn cloth mask,” the CDC says.

Vainshelboim also states in his paper “scientific evidence supporting facemasks’ efficacy is lacking,” but that’s false. A multitude of studies published since the start of 2021 support the effectiveness of masks and mask mandates in reducing spread of COVID-19.

BOTTOM LINE

A “Stanford study” has not been published by the National Institute of Health proving masks are ineffective and harmful.

Stanford confirmed the author and the paper are not associated with the university, and that it “strongly supports” the use of masks to help control the spread of COVID-19.

More from VERIFY: Can undocumented immigrants receive COVID-19 vaccines?

VERIFY
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