Do glasses protect you from the virus?
THE NEW YORK TIMES When researchers in China were analyzing hospital data of patients with COVID-19, they noticed an odd trend: Very few of the sick patients regularly wore glasses.
In one hospital in Suizhou, China, 276 patients were admitted over a 47-day period, but only 16 patients — less than 6% — had myopia or nearsightedness that required them to wear glasses for more than eight hours a day. By comparison, more than 30% of similarly aged people in the region needed glasses for nearsightedness, earlier research had shown.
Given that the rate of nearsightedness appeared to be so much higher in the general population than in the COVID ward, the scientists wondered: Could wearing glasses protect a person from becoming infected with coronavirus?
“Wearing of eyeglasses is common among Chinese individuals of all ages,” the study authors wrote. “However, since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan in December 2019, we observed that few patients with eyeglasses were admitted in the hospital ward.”
The observation “could be preliminary evidence that daily wearers of eyeglasses are less susceptible to COVID-19,” the authors speculated.
Experts say it’s too soon to draw conclusions from the research — or recommend that people start wearing eye protection in addition to masks in hopes of lowering their risk for infection.
It may be that eyeglasses act as a partial barrier, protecting eyes from the splatter of a cough or sneeze. Another explanation for the finding could be that people who wear glasses are less likely to rub their eyes with contaminated hands. A 2015 report on face touching found that over the course of an hour, students watching a lecture touched their eyes, nose or mouth, on average, about 10 times, though the researchers did not look into whether wearing glasses made a difference.
The current study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, was accompanied by a commentary from Dr. Lisa Maragakis, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who urged caution in interpreting the results.
The study was small, involving fewer than 300 cases of COVID-19, a tiny fraction of the nearly 30 million reported cases of coronavirus infection around the world. Another concern is that the data on nearsightedness in the comparison group were gleaned from a study that took place decades earlier.
And Maragakis noted that any number of factors could confound the data, and it may be that wearing glasses is simply associated with another variable that affects risk for COVID-19. For example, it could be that people who wear glasses tend to be older, and more careful and more likely to stay home during a viral outbreak, than those who do not wear glasses. Or perhaps people who can afford glasses are less likely to contract the virus for other reasons, like having the means to live in less crowded spaces.
“It’s one study,” Maragakis said. “It does have some biological plausibility, given that in health care facilities, we use eye protection,” such as face shields or goggles.