Novel research has potentially uncovered a shocking long-term symptom of COVID-19, revealing that the disease might cause male infertility.
Firuza Parikh and Rajesh Parikh pioneered the study at Jaslok Hospital and Sanjeeva Srivastava at the Indian Institute of Technology. The team’s investigation suggests a range of long-term symptoms from SARS-CoV-2 infection far beyond the well-established brain fog and heart problems, suggesting male infertility can also be caused by COVID-19.
Researchers analysed protein levels in the semen of males who have recovered from COVID-19, identifying that mild or moderate illness can drastically affect the levels of these proteins that are essential to male reproduction.
The full findings of the study are published in ACS Omega.
The prevalence of male infertility
Research has illuminated that approximately 9% of men experience fertility problems in the US, and in one-third of infertile couples, the issue is due to male infertility. Moreover, as men get older, their reproductive capabilities reduce gradually.
There is a wide range of biological and lifestyle factors that can result in male infertility. Medical causes include infections, ejaculation problems, tumours, undescended testicles, hormone problems, celiac disease, chromosome defects, and utilising particular medications or undergoing certain surgeries. Lifestyle factors include drug and alcohol use, smoking tobacco, and obesity.
Despite COVID-19 primarily attacking the respiratory system, the body’s response to the virus, and the infection itself, it also damages other tissues. Recent studies discovered that COVID-19 infection can reduce male fertility, with the virus being detected in male reproductive organs. To investigate this further, the researchers compared protein levels in the semen of healthy men who had previously had mild or moderate COVID-19.
The long-term impacts of COVID-19
Scientists analysed semen samples from 10 healthy men and 17 men who had recently recovered from COVID-19, aged between 20 and 45. None of the participants had a prior history of male infertility.
The results demonstrated that the men who had recovered from COVID-19 had substantially reduced sperm count and motility and fewer normally shaped sperm compared to the men who never had COVID-19.
Subsequently, the team utilised liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry to examine semen proteins, which revealed 27 proteins at higher levels and 21 proteins at lower levels in participants who had recovered from COVID-19 compared to the control group.
An array of these proteins is instrumental in reproductive function. For example, two of the proteins related to fertility – semenogelin 1 and prosaposin – were less than half of their levels in the semen of the COVID-19 recovered group than in the semen of controls.
The researchers concluded: “These findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 has direct or indirect effects on male reproductive health that linger after recovery. The work might also reveal insights into the pathophysiology of human reproduction in recovered men.”
The researchers explained that more extensive studies are required to confirm these findings, and a control group of men who recently recovered from other flu-like illnesses should be included to solidify that the results are specific to COVID-19.