The killer coronavirus rapidly sweeping the world could be caught through the eyes, scientists have today warned.
Chinese doctor Wang Guangfa fears he may have contracted the SARS-like infection because he wasn’t wearing protective goggles.
Leading experts confirmed it is ‘absolutely possible’, saying the virus can enter the eyes by touching them – if it is on a patient’s hands.
And they even warned the virus – thought to be spread through sneezes and coughs – can roam through the body to reach the eye.
Twenty-six patients have died in the coronavirus outbreak in China, which has struck down more than 900 people and spread as far as the US.
Paul Kellam, professor of virus genomics at Imperial College London, said this is ‘absolutely possible’.
‘If you have droplets sneezed at you, they will wash from your eye to your nose,’ he told MailOnline. ‘Your eye connects to your nose through the lacrimal duct.
‘If you suffer from allergies and if your eyes run, so will your nose. Or if you put medication in your eyes, you’ll taste at the back of your throat.
‘It isn’t unusual for flu and other viruses to be transmitted this way. You can also get respiratory infections through the eye.’
Professor Kellam said it is for this reason healthcare workers must wear eye protection.
And even though face masks that protect the mouth and nose are effective, they clearly ‘won’t protect the eyes’.
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, backed up Professor Kellam’s claim.
He told MailOnline: ‘Transmission would potentially be by touching the eye so the virus is on the hand, which then makes it easy to spread from one person to another.
‘Think of it like the common cold or the flu, touching nose/mouth/eyes is a way to spread them.’
Dr Guangfa heads the department of pulmonary medicine at Beijing’s Peking University First Hospital.
He was part of a team of experts that earlier this month visited Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.
‘I was diagnosed and my condition is fine,’ he told Kong’s Cable TV on Tuesday. He said he was going to receive an injection – but did offer any more details.
The coronavirus has so far claimed the lives of 26 people – all in China – and infected more than 900 in 10 different countries.
The World Health Organisation last night stopped short of declaring it a ‘global health emergency’, but said there was no doubt it ‘may yet become one’.
The virus – previously unknown to science – first appeared in Wuhan last month. It originated in a meat market and scientists believe it ‘jumped the species barrier’ from snakes, which may have been on sale illegally, to humans.
Symptoms begin with a fever, a dry cough and sneezing. This is followed by shortness of breath about a week later, which can develop into pneumonia.
CORONAVIRUS: WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
What is this virus?
The virus has been identified as a new type of coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a large family of pathogens, most of which cause mild respiratory infections such as the common cold.
But coronaviruses can also be deadly. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is caused by a coronavirus and killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in the early 2000s.
Can it kill?
Yes. Twenty-six people have so far died after testing positive for the virus.
Its symptoms are typically a fever, cough and trouble breathing, but some patients have developed pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening infection that causes inflammation of the small air sacs in the lungs. People carrying the novel coronavirus may only have mild symptoms, such as a sore throat. They may assume they have a common cold and not seek medical attention, experts fear.
How is it detected?
The virus’s genetic sequencing was released by scientists in China to the rest of the world to enable other countries to quickly diagnose potential new cases. This helps other countries respond quickly to disease outbreaks.
To contain the virus, airports are detecting infected people with temperature checks. But as with every virus, it has an incubation period, meaning detection is not always possible because symptoms have not appeared yet.
How did it start and spread?
The first cases identified were among people connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.
Cases have since been identified elsewhere which could have been spread through human-to-human transmission.
What are countries doing to prevent the spread?
Countries in Asia have stepped up airport surveillance. They include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines.
Australia and the US are also screening patients for a high temperature, and the UK announced it will screen passengers returning from Wuhan.
Is it similar to anything we’ve ever seen before?
Experts have compared it to the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The epidemic started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in mainland China, Hong Kong and elsewhere.