COVID-19 infection through eyes

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is predominantly transmitted through direct or indirect contact with mucous membranes in the mouth or nose, but also the eyes, a new study points. The fact that exposed mucous membranes and unprotected eyes increased the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests that exposure of unprotected eyes to coronavirus could cause also a COVID-19 infection.

Although there is no direct evidence from randomised trials that eye protection equipment alone prevents transmission of COVID-19, indirect evidence suggests that healthcare workers’ conjunctivae could be exposed to infective droplets and aerosols from patients during close contact, something that also could be extended to general population, since infectious droplets and body fluids can easily contaminate the human conjunctival epithelium. Ironically, the earliest cries of alarm about COVID-19 were made by Dr Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist caring for patients in Wuhan.

In this way, on Jan 22, Guangfa Wang, a member of the national expert panel on pneumonia, reported that he was infected by SARS-CoV-2 during the inspection in Wuhan. He wore an N95 mask but did not wear anything to protect his eyes. Several days before the onset of pneumonia, Wang complained of redness of the eyes. Unprotected exposure of the eyes to SARS-CoV-2 in the Wuhan Fever Clinic might have allowed the virus to infect the body.

Besides, some reports suggest that the virus can cause a mild form of viral pink eye, or conjunctivitis, that’s indistinguishable from other causes of infection, since mucous membranes, including in the eye area, are a common way the coronavirus can enter the body.

Finally, doctors are recommending people who wear contact lenses to switch to glasses to avoid transmitting coronavirus through the eyes, since wearing glasses may also be a more effective way to prevent infected droplets in the air from entering the eye.

Hence, the scientists cautioned that it’s important for people to guard their eyes, as well as their hands and mouth, to slow the spread of respiratory viruses like the novel coronavirus, since people can also become infected by touching surfaces that has the virus on it ―like a table or doorknob― and then touching the eyes.

Link to the paper: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30313-5

Editorial Disclaimer: information published during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic may be updated frequently to reflect the dynamic nature of current understanding.

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