Since the COVID-19 virus is such a new phenomenon, scientists simply don’t know enough about how it affects the human body. Months ago, all we knew was that SARS-CoV-2–the virus responsible for COVID-19 that primarily attacks the lungs–caused human hosts to develop a dry cough, fever, and perhaps a runny nose. Then, COVID-19 patients started losing their sense of smell and taste. Weeks later, doctors started noticing that individuals with pre-existing heart conditions were developing further cardiovascular complications as a result of COVID-19, some of which resulted in deaths from cardiac arrest.
Today, we’re still discovering much about the virus, which scientists say appears to impact almost every part of the body in some way. It turns out that COVID-19 may even affect a man’s semen, according to a recent Chinese study.
The study, carried out at the Shangqiu Municipal Hospital in the Henan province of China, observed 38 men aged 15 years and older who were hospitalized with COVID-19. Of the 38 men, 23 had recovered from the virus, but the remaining 15 were still in the “acute stage of infection,” where symptoms develop rapidly. Doctors then decided to analyze the patients’ semen, where they found traces of COVID-19 in the semen of six men, including two who were recovering.
“We found that SARS-CoV-2 can be present in the semen of patients with COVID-19, and SARS-CoV-2 may still be detected in the semen of recovering patients,” said Dr. Diangeng Li of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing in a statement.
This research raises questions about if COVID-19 can be transmitted sexually, and if the virus can affect a man’s ability to conceive. To date, it is unclear. However, Allan Pacey, a professor of male fertility at Sheffield University, is skeptical. He questioned the results of the Chinese study, as another similar study that examined 34 male COVID-19 patients did not find the virus in their semen. Additionally, he noted that even if COVID-19 could make its way to a man’s seminal tract, that doesn’t necessarily mean the virus is active or infectious.
“However, we should not be surprised if the virus which causes COVID-19 is found in the semen of some men, since this has been shown with many other viruses such as Ebola and Zika,” said Pacey.
Sheena Lewis, professor of reproductive medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, also voiced her doubts about the results of the study. She noted that the study was very small, consisting of only 38 COVID-19 patients, and that “the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 on male reproduction are not yet known.”
Based on the (inconclusive) research we have so far, it looks like we don’t know enough about COVID-19 to determine if it negatively impacts male fertility or not. For now, we can safely assume that recovered patients will not have a diminished reproductive ability, but to err on the side of caution, it might be a good idea for men infected with COVID-19 to abstain from sexual activity until they’ve flushed the virus out of their system or until scientists can pin down whether it is sexually transmitted.