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.

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