A study was carried out on large mammals infected with Covid-19 to assess the spread of the virus in the body. The researchers then made a surprising discovery. It seems that the virus does not stop at the intended organs like the lungs, but can reach the entire male genital tract, namely the penis, testicles and prostate.
The team led by Thomas Hope, a professor of cell biology and developmental biology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, says the finding would support the theory that the virus directly infects genital cells. This infection causes a drop in the number and quality of spermatozoa, a decrease in fertility, but also erectile dysfunction. Contrary to what one might have thought, these disorders are therefore not linked to fever or inflammation but rather to the infection of the cells of the male reproductive system by SARS-CoV-2.
The results have been published on the bioRxiv pre-print platform. They have therefore not yet been evaluated by a reading committee.
The confirmation of a doubt
The study was carried out on rhesus macaques. The researchers wanted to try to characterize the spread of the virus in the bodies of large mammals over time. Many examinations, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT), were performed at different times during SARS-CoV-2 infection.
A strong signal was detected in the genital tract of the three animals studied. The analyzes revealed the presence of a large number of infected cells throughout the vasculature of the penis, testicles and prostate. The scans also showed signals from the epididymis which stores and transports sperm. These signals were later confirmed by tissue analysis. Two weeks after infection, one of the macaques also suffered from serious problems with his testicles.
Another group of individuals was also followed after infection with the Delta variant. Performing the same examinations, signals were detected in the lungs, heart, prostate and both testicles. After many doubts, scientists seem to have found evidence of genital pathologies in people with Covid-19.
Studies done so far have been inconclusive on the percentage of men who have experienced reproductive problems after Covid-19 infection. However, changes in sperm motility have been detected in 60% of men after contracting the disease.
According to Hope, even though reproductive problems affect only a small percentage of those infected, that still represents millions of men suffering from a negative impact on their sexual health. He added that the potential impacts of Covid-19 on reproductive health should be considered by everyone when deciding whether or not to get vaccinated.
This study was conducted on rhesus macaques, suggesting that the results may be the same in humans. Pending reading by the committee, the data should be considered preliminary data.