Researchers from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan are calling for more urgent research into the long-term consequences of COVID-19 infection on male fertility, amid mounting evidence of decreased sperm mobility, lower sperm counts and testicular damage.
“We propose that there is an urgent need to track male COVID-19 patients during their recovery,” microbiologist Yu Tian and reproductive biologist Li-quan Zhou said.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the disease COVID-19, enters the human body via an enzyme (called Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) that is present in numerous vital organs including the lungs, heart, kidneys and intestines. This leaves them susceptible to significant damage as the virus gains a foothold and begins replicating uncontrollably.
The enzyme’s receptor can be found in the olfactory, respiratory, digestive, circulatory, neurological and potentially even the male reproductive systems.
Preliminary studies have found the presence of the virus in semen samples of COVID-19 positive patients.
Researchers from Justus-Liebig-University in Germany and Allameh Tabataba’i University in Iran report direct evidence of testicular damage in the aftermath of COVID-19 infection.
They discovered inflammation markers in samples of tissue from 84 COVID-19 patients against 105 controls.
The teams tested sperm quality and looked for signs of oxidative stress in the patients. They found that inflammation and cellular stress were twice as severe in the COVID-19 positive group as the control.
Worryingly, the sperm of the infected was three times slower, and their sperm counts were dramatically lower as well.
“These effects on sperm cells are associated with lower sperm quality and reduced fertility potential,” says lead researcher Behzad Hajizadeh Maleki, a sports scientist from Justus-Liebig-University.
“Although these effects tended to improve over time, they remained significantly and abnormally higher in the COVID-19 patients, and the magnitude of these changes were also related to disease severity.”
If these findings are confirmed and supported by additional research, it threatens to compound existing fertility crises in many Western nations.
The situation is likely to be exacerbated by a precarious economic situation in which the threat of a global recession still hangs in the air.