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As states and cities increasingly require Americans to wear a mask in public spaces to protect themselves and others from contracting COVID-19, researchers say that the virus can just as easily enter the body through the eyes.
This means, of course, that wearing a mask alone wouldn’t be enough to protect yourself.
As reported by the UK’s Daily Mail, scientists who are part of a team led by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that coronavirus can enter through the eyes after discovering a protein the disease utilizes in binding to cells.
The receptors are found in the lungs and respiratory tract, researchers note, which is where coronavirus initially infiltrates cells and other organs.
Coronavirus attaches to ACE-2 receptors, called the “gateway” into body cells. The research team discovered that the eyes produce the receptors, so they are susceptible to the virus.
The paper added:
It means if droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough were to land on the surface of the eye, the virus could begin infiltrating cells there.
It may explain why some patients have suffered conjunctivitis – an inflammation of the eye which causes it to become red and infected.
Researchers also believe that not only can coronavirus enter through the eyes, but tears could also serve as a means of spreading the infection.
The team, led by Dr. Lingli Zhou of the university’s Department of Ophthalmology, analyzed 10 post-mortem eyes from people who didn’t die from coronavirus for the presence of the ACE-2 enzyme.
“ACE-2 is understood to be the entry point for the virus. Its spiky surface binds to the receptors and, from there, infects the cell and replicates,” the Daily Mail noted.
The research team has hypothesized that persons with more ACE-2 receptors could be more susceptible to the first infectious dose they come in contact with.
The team also searched for the presence of TMPRSS2, another enzyme that helps the virus enter the body after binding to the spiked proteins of ACE-2 enzymes. Both of the enzymes have to be present in the same cell for coronavirus to replicate, the team noted.
In the post-mortem eye samples examined by the team, researchers found ACE-2 in the conjunctiva, cornea, and limbus, the latter of which is the tissue bordering the cornea and the white of the eye. They also found the presence of TMPRSS2.
“Together, these results indicate that ocular surface cells including conjunctiva are susceptible to infection by SARS-CoV-2, and could therefore serve as a portal of entry as well as a reservoir for person-to-person transmission of this virus,” the team wrote of their findings.
The team’s research was spurred by “extensive speculation” that coronavirus could indeed enter the body through the eyes.
Scientists have known for some time that COVID-19 can be easily spread through droplets of saliva and the nose, hence the recommendation for the use of masks. But reports have also hinted that coronavirus infections lead to cases of conjunctivitis, found in about 30 percent of patients in one study, the Daily Mail noted.
Some researchers have suggested that the instances of conjunctivitis are secondary conditions linked to the disease in some patients. But others believe that the eyes can actually serve as a conduit for the virus’ entry into the body.
Zhou’s team said viral particles seen in tears “could result in transmission to other individuals.”
“Infection of ocular surface cells could lead to the eye as being an important carrier, with ocular virus shedding constituting a significant mechanism for infection of other individuals,” they wrote.
The team noted that face masks and eye protection combined could mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“This highlights the importance of safety practices including face masks and ocular contact precautions in preventing the spread of COVID-19 disease,” researchers wrote, without saying whether dual protection was beneficial to the general public or just for healthcare workers.
Last month, the American Academy of Ophthalmology noted that it was “possible” for coronavirus to enter the body through the conjunctiva.
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