Hospitalized virologist suspects he got coronavirus through his eyes

Virologist and epidemiologist Dr. Joseph Fair.
Virologist and epidemiologist Dr. Joseph Fair.(Twitter)

The eyes have it.
Or at least, they can get it.
That’s what virologist and epidemiologist Dr. Joseph Fair believes is what happened to him. The NBC medical contributor, 42, has been hospitalized with coronavirus and is almost certain it came in through his eyeballs on a crowded flight.
About three days after flying home to New Orleans on a plane that “had us packed in like sardines,” he told NBC News, he got sick with flu-like symptoms that gradually worsened until he ended up in the hospital this week, on oxygen.
“I had a mask on, I had gloves on, I did my normal wipes routine ... but obviously, you can still get it through your eyes,” Fair told NBC News from his hospital bed. “And of course I wasn’t wearing goggles on the flight. Instinctively, I probably should have gotten off.”
The most widely known and publicized method of transmission of the virus is when droplets from someone’s sneezing or coughing land in or near one’s mouth or nose, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website. Touching one’s face with unwashed hands after droplets land on them or are transferred when a person touches a contaminated surface can also transmit it through one of those entry points.
While eyes have been mentioned in that context, it seems they may also be susceptible in their own right.
“That’s one of the three known routes of getting this infection that we just don’t pay a lot of attention to; we tend to pay attention to the nose and mouth because that is the most common route,” Fair said. “But you know, droplets landing on your eyes are just as infectious.”
A study out last week found that the eyes contain a key enzyme that coronavirus particles latch onto. That study has not yet been peer-reviewed, and other evidence is anecdotal. But the circumstantial case is getting stronger.

COVID-19 latches onto ACE-2 receptors, which are plentiful in the lungs and gut, and as it turns out exist in the eye as well. Last week’s study by a team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was published on the pre-print server BioRxiv. It is awaiting peer review. In addition, a study published in March in JAMA Ophthalmology by researchers in China also found that the eyes could be a route of infection.

In January a top Chinese respiratory therapist also theorized the same thing about his infection, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. Wang Guangfa, a respiratory specialist from Peking University First Hospital in Beijing, was infected even though he and his colleagues “were highly vigilant and wore N95 masks” on a trip to Wuhan, but then it hit him that he hadn’t worn protective glasses. Wang developed conjunctivitis in his left eye after returning to Beijing, along with other symptoms, tested positive, and later recovered.

In Washington State, nurses at the first care-giving facility to register coronavirus cases in the U.S. described seeing red “allergy eyes” in many of their elderly charges who then died.

Fair, a runner in top shape, said his experience should serve as a warning to those who think they lack the underlying conditions or age for severe illness.

“If it can take me down, it can take anybody down,” he said.

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