Can you get infected with coronavirus while having sex? Study says it is unlikely to spread through semen

However, the study was not comprehensive enough to fully rule out the possibility that the disease could be sexually transmitted


                            Can you get infected with coronavirus while having sex? Study says it is unlikely to spread through semen
(Getty Images)

The new coronavirus is unlikely to spread through semen, according to a small study that looked at 34 Chinese men with mild-to-moderate COVID-19. 

None of these men had the new coronavirus in the semen and testes, but some experienced testicular pain. Scientists are not ruling out the possibility of sexual transmission yet.

"The fact that in this small, preliminary study that it appears the virus that causes COVID-19 doesn't show up in the testes or semen could be an important finding," says Dr James M Hotaling, a co-author of the study and a University of Utah Health associate professor of urology.

"If a disease like COVID-19 were sexually transmittable that would have major implications for disease prevention, and could have serious consequences for a man's long-term reproductive health," he added.

The new coronavirus predominantly spreads through respiratory droplets. But scientists have found the virus in blood samples and feces from COVID-19 patients, raising questions about sexual transmission of the disease.

So the team collected semen samples from 34 Chinese men diagnosed with the disease. Laboratory tests did not find the virus in the semen. 

But 19 percent of the participants experienced testicular pain, which could signal damage to the testes. That led scientists to a question: was the virus entering the testes, where sperms are produced?

"If the virus is in the testes but not the sperm it can't be sexually transmitted," says Dr Jingtao Guo, a postdoctoral scientist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, who also co-authored the study.

But if the virus enters the testes, it could signal long-term damage to semen and sperm production, he added.

Without the two proteins — ACE 2 and Type II transmembrane serine proteases — the virus cannot enter human cells (Getty Images)

To find out if the virus has access to the testes, the team looked at data from healthy young testicular donors. Specifically, they mined the data to check if testes produced proteins that help the new coronavirus attach to human cells. Without the two proteins — ACE 2 and Type II transmembrane serine proteases — the virus cannot enter human cells. The ACE 2 protein is produced largely in the lungs, kidney, and heart, explaining why some patients with COVID-19 have failed organs.

After looking at data from 6,500 donor testicular cells, Guo and his team found only four cells produced these proteins, suggesting that the new coronavirus is unlikely to invade human testicular cells. However, Hotaling warns that intimate contact can still increase the risk of spreading the disease through coughing, sneezing, and kissing.

The study suffers from a few limitations. Most notably, it did not look for the virus in the semen samples of patients with severe disease. "It could be that a man who is critically ill with COVID-19 might have a higher viral load [amount of virus], which could lead to a greater likelihood of infecting the semen. We just don't have the answer to that right now," Hotaling says. "But knowing that we didn't find that kind of activity among the patients in this study who were recovering from mild to moderate forms of the disease is reassuring."

The study appears in Fertility & Sterility, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

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