In a new study, researchers found that COVID-19 is unlikely to be spread through semen.
They tested Chinese men who recently had the disease and found no evidence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in the semen or testes of the men.
The study was not comprehensive enough to fully rule out the possibility that the disease could be sexually transmitted.
However, the chances of it occurring, based on this limited finding, appear to be remote.
The research was conducted by the University of Utah Health scientists and collaborators.
The international team of researchers from China and the United States launched the study in response to concerns that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could be sexually transmitted like Ebola, Zika, and other emerging viral pathogens.
To find out, they collected semen samples from 34 Chinese men one month (on average) after they were diagnosed with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. Laboratory tests did not detect SARS-CoV-2 in any of the semen samples.
But just because the virus wasn’t present in the existing semen didn’t necessarily rule out that it hadn’t entered the testes where sperm cells are formed.
To sort this part of the puzzle out, the researchers analyzed a dataset generated from a single cell mRNA atlas from healthy young organ donors that were available from prior work.
This atlas allows them to examine mRNA, the genetic material used to make proteins, in any single testicular cell. In this case, scientists used it to examine the expression of a pair of genes associated with SARS-CoV-2.
These two genes, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2) act as receptors, allowing SARS-CoV2 to penetrate cells and replicate. In order for the virus to access cells effectively, both receptors must be present in the same cell.
When the scientists examined the dataset, they found that genes encoding these two proteins were only found in four of the 6,500 testicular cells, suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to invade human testicular cells.
Despite these findings, the researchers acknowledge that their study has several important limitations including small sample size and the fact that none of the donors had been severely ill with COVID-19.
The team warns that intimate contact can still increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 through coughing, sneezing, and kissing.
In addition, some infected people are asymptomatic and can appear healthy, even as they pass the virus along to others.
One author of the study is James M. Hotaling, M.D., a U of U Health associate professor of urology specializing in male fertility.
The study is published in Fertility and Sterility.
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