Coronavirus is likely not sexually transmitted, study finds

·4 min read
A new joint study between American and Chinese scientists suggests that COVID-19 is likely not spread through sexual contact. (Photo: Getty Images)
A new joint study between American and Chinese scientists suggests that COVID-19 is likely not spread through sexual contact. (Photo: Getty Images)

A new study from the University of Utah Health (U of U Health) has revealed a rare bit of good news amid the coronavirus pandemic — namely, that the virus is showing no signs of being sexually transmitted.

The research, published through the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, was a joint effort between scientists in Wuhan (where the virus is believed to have originated), scientists at U of U Health, Columbia University and Cornell University. Together, they analyzed semen samples from 34 men in China and found no trace of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in any of their semen.

Although the sample size was too small to fully rule out the possibility of the coronavirus being sexually transmitted, the researchers conclude that the chances of it spreading through sex are “remote” at best. Dr. James M. Hotaling, one of the study’s authors and a professor at U of U Health, tells Yahoo Life the study was inspired by preliminary reports from China showing that the virus was not spreading to the testes — as well as the realization that “people need some good news.”

Ebola, Zika and other infectious diseases have been found to spread through sexual contact, but Hotaling says that the complex nature of this virus may explain it’s absence from the semen. “The virus requires two receptors to get into cells ... and basically, in testes cells, none of them showed both these receptors,” he says. “We’ve shown preliminary evidence that it doesn’t appear in the semen.”

In a press release on U of U Health’s website, Jingtao Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at the university, echoes Hotaling’s thoughts. "If the virus is in the testes but not the sperm it can't be sexually transmitted," he says. "But if it is in the testes, it can cause long-term damage to semen and sperm production."

Hotaling notes that the report should not make Americans rush to have sex, given that COVID-19 is spread through saliva — and can be transmitted days before symptoms appear. But the fact that it does not appear in semen opens of the possibility of safe sexual encounters.

In an April blog post on this topic, posted on Harvard University’s website, Huma Farid, an ob-gyn at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, advises individuals not to fully rule out sex during this time. “[The fact that it spreads through saliva] does not mean that you should isolate yourself from your spouse or partner and stop being intimate at all. If both of you are healthy and feeling well, are practicing social distancing and have had no known exposure to anyone with COVID-19, touching, hugging, kissing and sex are more likely to be safe,” Farid writes. “Similarly, sharing a bed with a partner who is healthy should not be an issue.”

It’s important to highlight that the study has limitations. On top of small sample size, Hotaling notes that the 34 men tested were all showing mostly mild symptoms. “What we don’t know is if you’re super sick on a ventilator does [the virus] reach a threshold [for sexual transmission]? We don’t know,” he says. “But of these 34, we didn’t see the virus in any of their semen. That is very reassuring.” He says the researchers also still don’t know if it has any longterm effect on reproduction, which can occur with some infections such as mumps.

Hotaling says it’s fair to be excited by this research and reiterates that “further studies are needed to make a definitive conclusion.” But, he adds, that he’d be “very surprised” to see the results change.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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