Study examines characteristics and results of semen tests among men with COVID-19

May 11, 2020

It has been confirmed that COVID-19 has the characteristic of human-to-human transmission, mainly through respiratory droplets and contact. The virus responsible for COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has been detected in stool, gastrointestinal tract, saliva and urine samples. However, little is known about SARS-CoV-2 in semen. In a cohort study, it was 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. 

The cohort study was performed after patients gave written informed consent for research purposes, and in compliance with the Helsinki Declaration with the approval of the ethics committee of Shangqiu Municipal Hospital, Shangqiu, China. This study is reported following the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) reporting guideline. 

The study identified all male patients with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 aged 15 years and older between January 26, 2020, and February 16, 2020, in Shangqiu Municipal Hospital, which is the only designated hospital for the treatment of COVID-19 in Shangqiu, in the east of Henan province. Following guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO), laboratory confirmation for COVID-19 was defined as positive result for SARS-CoV-2 in real-time reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction assay of nasal and pharyngeal swabs. Enrolled patients were asked to provide a semen sample for SARS-CoV-2 testing. 

Groups were compared using the t test, χ2 test, or Mann-Whitney or Kruskal-Wallis test. All statistical analyses were performed using SPSS statistical software version 19 (IBM). P values were 2-tailed, and P < .05 was considered to indicate significant differences. 

Among 50 patients identified, 12 patients were unable to provide a semen specimen because of erectile dysfunction, being in a comatose state, or dying prior to recruitment; therefore, a total of 38 patients were enrolled for semen testing. 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. Results of semen testing found that six patients (15.8%) 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. But there was no significant difference between negative and positive test results for patients by age, urogenital disease history, days since onset, days since hospitalization, or days since clinical recovery. 

Owing to the imperfect blood-testes/deferens/epididymis barriers, SARS-CoV-2 might be seeded to the male reproductive tract, especially in the presence of systemic local inflammation. Even if the virus cannot replicate in the male reproductive system, it may persist, possibly resulting from the privileged immunity of testes. So far, researchers have found 27 viruses associated with viremia in human semen. But the presence of viruses in semen may be more common than currently understood, and traditional non–sexually transmitted viruses should not be assumed to be totally absent in genital secretions. Studies on viral detection and semen persistence are beneficial to clinical practice and public health, especially concerning viruses that could cause high mortality or morbidity, such as SARS-CoV-2. 

This 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. 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 fetal 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. The study might contribute by providing new information to the current discourse regarding COVID-19 prevention and control. 

JAMA has the story.  

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