Researchers detect coronavirus in semen; no word yet if disease can be sexually transmitted

Just when you thought the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic couldn’t get worse: researchers in China have found the virus in the semen of infected men, raising questions on whether the disease could also be sexually transmitted.

A study published in the Journal of American Medicine Association on Thursday (May 7) found the coronavirus in the semen of both men with active infections and those who already recovered from the virus.

“In this cohort study, 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,” authors of the study disclosed.

The findings from the Shangqiu Municipal Hospital, in China’s Henan Province, took samples from a batch of 50 patients aged 15 and older between January 26 and February 16.

Among the 50 patients identified, 12 were unable to provide a semen specimen because of erectile dysfunction, either being in a comatose state, or dying prior to recruitment.

So, the remaining 38 patients were enrolled for semen testing, and six patients (or roughly 16%) “had results positive for SARS-CoV-2, including four of 15 patients (26.7%) who were at the acute stage of infection and two of 23 patients (8.7%) who were recovering, which is particularly noteworthy.”

Of these 38 participants who provided a semen specimen, 23 participants (60.5%) had achieved clinical recovery and 15 participants (39.5%) were at the acute stage of infection.

As scientists are still learning about the ways the coronavirus moves through the body, its viral particles have been found in saliva, blood, urine, and stool samples.

Interestingly, the study authors also don’t yet know how exactly the coronavirus entered the patients’ testes.

The barrier between the bloodstream and various parts of the penis is imperfect, however, so viruses being the crafty organisms they are, can pass through it, the researchers wrote.

Inflammation, which the coronavirus causes, can impact this barrier, too.

In the meantime, the researchers admit that the study is limited by the small sample size and the short subsequent follow-up.

Therefore, further studies are required with respect to the detailed information about virus shedding, survival time, and concentration in semen.

“If it could be proved that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted sexually in future studies, sexual transmission might be a critical part of the prevention of transmission, especially considering the fact that SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the semen of recovering patients,” the study continued.

“Abstinence or condom use might be considered as preventive means for these patients. In addition, it is worth noting that there is a need for studies monitoring foetal development. Therefore, to avoid contact with the patient’s saliva and blood may not be enough, since the survival of SARS-CoV-2 in a recovering patient’s semen maintains the likelihood to infect others. Our study might contribute by providing new information to the current discourse regarding COVID-19 prevention and control,” the authors noted.