LG unveils a new high-tech ‘smart mask.’ But does it protect against COVID?

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LG plans to sell a mask that makes cloth versions worn by many people during the coronavirus era seem like they’re from the Stone Age. The so-called smart mask, partially unveiled on Thursday, is packed with hospital-grade HEPA filters and battery-powered fans that are supposed to make breathing easier by drawing in air.

Although LG says the mask is good for health, hygiene, and for making “life safer,” the company left one big question unanswered: Does the mask protect against COVID-19?

“If this mask were to be marketed as a protection against COVID, I would want to see data on its effectiveness for the wearer and also its effectiveness at limiting transmission of respiratory droplets to others,” said Dr. Janet Baseman, a professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Washington. “Absent that data, it’s hard to say how it would perform against an N95 mask,” the type of mask often used by health workers for protection against the coronavirus and other infectious diseases.

LG doesn’t have any data about its new mask’s effectiveness against COVID-19. Responding to an inquiry from Fortune, the Korean electronics company said it’s waiting for the results of ongoing tests before discussing the topic.

N95 masks have already been shown to both protect people wearing them from inhaling coronavirus-bearing droplets, and reduce the risk of them spreading the virus by breathing. Widely-used cloth masks provide less protection for people wearing them than an N95, but they still help to significantly limit community transmission of the virus by reducing how far exhalations travel.

N95 masks can be difficult to breathe in, a nuisance LG apparently hopes to capitalize on with its fan-equipped masks. But those fans could themselves create unexpected risks. If a person infected with the coronavirus wears LG’s mask, the fans may create air currents outside the mask that could spread the virus.

An image of the LG’s mask, called the PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier, shows vents on the front the mask, and while their exact purpose is unclear, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has already warned that masks with exhalation valves or vents “do not prevent the person wearing the mask from transmitting COVID-19 to others.”

LG has not yet announced the mask’s price or weight, but it plans to reveal more details at the IFA tech conference in Berlin in early September. LG says the mask will be available in a limited number of unidentified markets this year, sometime after Oct. 1.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

  • What the first confirmed COVID-19 reinfection tells us about a future vaccine
  • I’m a physician and a CEO. Why I won’t bring my employees back to the office before Labor Day 2021
  • American Airlines announces plan to cut 19,000 jobs—unless Congress extends pandemic aid
  • Hong Kong’s new mass COVID testing scheme is free and voluntary—and some citizens are suspicious
  • ‘We will do this together’: Germany will continue subsidizing workers’ wages through the end of 2021

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