New study shows that SARS-CoV-2 can infect ocular tissue. Eye protection is advised in addition to face masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent behind the COVID-19 pandemic, has been confirmed to infect ocular tissue, strongly suggesting the need to protect our eyes from infection by this deadly virus.

The study was presented 2021 Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) by Dr Sneha Singh and Dr Ashok Kumar, from the Kresge Eye Institute at Wayne State University, in the USA.

In the study, researchers screened eyes donated for corneal transplantation, testing for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2. They found that the ocular tissue hosted viable viruses, capable of eliciting an antiviral immune response and capable of reproducing. Furthermore, the research team found that eyes from diabetic patients were more likely to host a viral infection and elicit an antiviral immune response, suggesting that having diabetes may increase the susceptibility and severity of COVID-19.

“In our present study, the evidence for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the corneal tissue strengthens the previous reports that the eye could be a reservoir of the virus and get infected by SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr Singh in a press release.

The study provides the first experimental evidence of SARS-CoV-2transmission in ocular tissues.

“Our study confirms the presence of replicating SARS-CoV-2 in the cornea of COVID-19 donors resulting in the production of inflammatory mediators and recruitment of immune cells to the cornea. Moreover, diabetic corneal cells had increased SARS-CoV-2 replication, suggesting that diabetes is a potential risk for ocular transmission of COVID-19,” Dr Singh added.

The findings also have important implication for how we are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, hinting at the need of adding another layer of protection: goggles.

“It seems probable that people can be infected via their eyes, either by aerosols or droplets landing there, or from touching their eyes after touching a contaminated surface,” Dr Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia, told Medical Forum.

“Healthcare workers and hotel quarantine staff working with either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients should wear goggles in addition to a P2/N95 respirator,” she added.

In terms of the use of masks, Dr Hyde explains that using surgical masks or face shields do not provide optimal protection. “Surgical masks do block some aerosols, but that’s not really what they were designed for. Surgical masks and face shields are designed to block droplets. P2/N95 masks and goggles offer a higher level of protection against both droplets and aerosols,” Dr Hyde explained.