By Alison Campbell 19/11/2020


Back in 2008, Dr Anthony Fauci (yes, that Dr Fauci) co-authored a paper that examined the interplay between influenza infection and secondary bacterial infection in mortality from the “Spanish flu¹” pandemic of 1918-19.

He and his colleagues examined tissue samples taken during autopsies at the time of the pandemic, using their findings plus notes taken during a much larger number of autopsies to draw conclusions about the impact of bacterial infections.

The team found that every autopsy sample they looked at showed signs of severe bacterial infection. In addition, the autopsy series information also consistently showed that severe secondary bacterial pneumonia (caused by microbes that commonly live in the nose & throat) contributed to the majority of patient deaths.

They concluded that “The majority of deaths in the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic likely resulted directly from secondary bacterial pneumonia caused by common upper respiratory–tract bacteria” that found a good home in lungs already damaged by the virus – a finding supported by data from pandemics in 1957 & 1968. And they made the important point that planning for the next influenza pandemic needed to prepare for the inevitable bacterial involvement as well as for treating viral infections.

This is all well & good, but why am I writing about a study of the 1918-19 pandemic?

Because, amongst all the deliberate misinformation swirling around in relation to the covid-19 epidemic is the claim that Fauci & his colleagues showed that masks don’t work to prevent respiratory infections. I’ve seen it shared several times in the last day or so – and it’s an outright lie. The paper is here: you can read it for yourself & use the handy little ‘find’ function in your browser. The word ‘mask’ does not appear in it. Not. Once.

Unfortunately, claims like that are fairly common in social media. However, the actual science says otherwise: masks work quite well in preventing transmission of respiratory viruses. Here’s a list of 70 papers on the subject, including this rather clever visualisation of the effects of different types on mask on stopping respiratory droplets (not all masks are equal in doing this), plus this study in JAMA that shows that mask wearing has no effect on blood oxygenation.

Now, it was really straightforward to find the paper by Fauci & his colleagues and to do that simple search for a word. Please, please, please do that fact-checking before you press ‘share’ on the next post you read.

¹ Strictly speaking it was the “Kansas flu”, given that scientists are pretty sure that the virus probably jumped from pigs to people in the Kansas countryside.

Morens, D. M., Taubenberger, J. K., & Fauci, A. S. (2008). Predominant role of bacterial pneumonia as a cause of death in pandemic influenza: implications for pandemic influenza preparedness. The Journal of Infectious Diseases198(7), 962–970. https://doi.org/10.1086/591708

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