A recent study in the Journal of Medical Virology has shown that COVID-19 may have a negative effect on sperm concentration. The study’s participants were men between the ages of 20-50 years old. The patient group consisted of 100 men who had recovered from COVID-19, while the control group consisted of 100 men who had never been infected with the virus.
“No statistically significant difference was detected between the groups of sperm motility and morphology,” the research shows. However, the men who had prior COVID-19 infections had decreased sperm concentrations.
While more research needs to be done to fully understand these changes, it is clear that SARS-CoV-2 is expressed not only in the lungs, but in the cells of the testicular tissue. This is important information to consider, as it could lead to fertility issues in people who have been ill with COVID.
We spoke with Dr. Jesse Ory, a urologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, about this research to gain some clarity on what it might mean for individuals and couples moving forward with their fertility journeys in the age of COVID.
Dr. Ory says the study in the Journal of Medical Virology further supports research done in 2021 out of the University of Miami, which demonstrates that COVID-19 temporarily reduces sperm count after infection.
“The testicles are very sensitive to illness and changes in temperature,” he says. “So anything that makes us sick can often temporarily drop sperm count.” It is not known how long this might last, but early data suggests a timeline of three to six months.
This is typical of almost any viral infection, Dr. Ory says. Here’s how it works for COVID-19 specifically:
“One of the receptors that SARS-CoV-2 locks onto is called ACE-2. While this receptor is present in the lungs, causing the classic respiratory infection that people experience, there are also these ACE-2 receptors in the testicles. The COVID virus has been found in testicular tissue during acute infection as well.”
Some potentially good news: sperm motility and morphology don’t seem to be impacted in the same way as sperm concentration, which means that COVID infections likely don’t affect the underlying quality of sperm. Rather, they make it harder for the testicles to produce sperm in high numbers.
While we don’t have data on the topic of repeat infections yet, from Dr. Ory’s perspective, it’s reasonable to assume that people who have severe COVID infections again and again would have worse sperm parameters than those who stay reasonably healthy.
In the COVID era, staying entirely clear of the virus has proven to be difficult, and Dr. Ory says getting vaccinated is the best thing one can do to maintain a high sperm count. Severe infections not only reduce numbers of sperm, they can also lead to COVID orchitis (testicular swelling). Recent evidence also points to the virus worsening erectile function.
On the topic of vaccines, Dr. Ory and his team published the first study showing that the mRNA COVID vaccines are harmless when it comes to sperm count and quality.
“At the time we started our study, the vaccine was just being rolled out, and there were a lot of people nervous and uncertain about the COVID vaccines, with many rumors spreading about potential effects on fertility. We asked men to provide a semen sample before and after getting their COVID vaccine, and found the vaccine was completely safe for male fertility.”
In terms of studies on this topic going forward, Dr. Ory tells us to pay attention to Dr. Ranjith Ramasamy (with the University of Miami) for cutting edge research on male fertility and COVID.