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The novel coronavirus has been discovered in the semen of infected male individuals, according to Chinese researchers, potentially raising the prospect that the virus could potentially be sexually transmitted.
However, the study also raises questions: It doesn’t explain how much viral load was present in the sperm, nor does it examine whether or not the virus could be transmitted through sexual activity.
The study, conducted at China’s Shangqiu Municipal Hospital, is described in a research letter published Thursday by the JAMA Network of medical journals.
This research is the first to detect the virus in reproductive fluids. Further study is needed to understand whether safe-sex practices should be part of COVID-19 prevention efforts, according to medical experts who read the paper.
“These are intriguing results,” John Brooks, chief medical officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC's) coronavirus response, told The Wall Street Journal. But it doesn’t mean that semen is infectious, he said.
“When we’re looking everywhere for this virus, we’re finding its footprints in different places in the body -- whether that’s a trace or if it’s a big foot is very hard to say.”
Authorities believe the coronavirus mainly spreads from droplets produced when infected people cough, which are inhaled by people nearby. No known U.S. infections have spread through sexual contact, Brooks said.
Chinese researchers said semen from six out of 38 coronavirus survivors tested positive for the virus. According to the paper's abstract, four out of the six individuals were in “the acute stage of infection” at the time of semen collection, and the remaining two “had achieved clinical recovery."
Liona Poon, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Journal that the study falls short of explaining how much viral load was present in semen.
“Was it fragments or whole virus particulate? Until the virus is isolated and cultured, we don’t know if it’s infectious,” she said.
As of Thursday evening, there were more than 3.8 million cases of coronavirus worldwide; the virus had killed at least 268,877.