Should men be worried about the impact of COVID-19 virus, vaccine on their reproductive health?

Soon before the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana, rumours were rife that the vaccines have been made to deplete Africa’s ballooning population.

Aside from that, there were also concerns that men who take the vaccines may experience erectile dysfunction. Researchers have established that one of the reasons for vaccine hesitancy is the potential negative effect on fertility.

Without citing a study, former Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Okoe Boye, on March 27, 2021, dispelled the rumours noting that the vaccines are meant to provide immunity other than the shared claims.

Today, an emerging study shows that the vaccines produced to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus do not cause erectile dysfunction and neither do they affect sperm count. However, the study indicates that the coronavirus itself is harmful to the male reproductive tract.

The study, published on Thursday, June 17, 2021, in a peer-reviewed medical Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that said sperm count and its quality did not drop in healthy young men after receiving a first or second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

The study used semen samples from 45 men between the ages of 25 and 31, who were pre-screened to make sure they had no fertility issues. It said the samples were taken before the first shot of an mRNA vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, then 70 days after the second dose. The semen was then examined to determine sperm volume, concentration, motility and total sperm count.

“We found no changes in sperm parameters in the young healthy men that we studied who received both doses of mRNA vaccine,” said study author Dr Ranjith Ramasamy, director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at the University of Miami Health System, as quoted in a CNN interview.

Sperm concentration and total motile sperm count at the beginning of the study were 26 million/millilitre (mL) and 36 million, respectively, the study noted.

“After the second vaccine dose, the median sperm concentration significantly increased to 30 million/mL and the median TMSC to 44 million.”

Allan Pacey, professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield in the UK, who was not involved in the study is quoted to have said “This is reassuring data which suggests that sperm quality is not significantly altered by receiving two doses of one of the new mRNA vaccines for COVID-19,”

The study concludes that because the vaccines contain mRNA and not the live virus, it is unlikely that the vaccine would affect sperm parameters.

Does the study apply to AstraZeneca and other vaccines?

The study said it did not consider the AstraZeneca vaccines and Johnson and Johnson vaccines which are not based on the mRNA.

However, experts say this should not be a worry.

“We think the mechanism of how these vaccines work is all fairly similar despite different genetic material, so based on biology, we don’t think there should be anything different with the other two vaccines,” said study Dr Ranjith Ramasamy who is the director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at the University of Miami Health System.

 COVID-19 virus may impact sperm

A study published by the Journal of Reproduction and reported by CNN in January said severe cases of COVID-19 virus might impact the quality of a man’s sperm.

“This report provides the first direct evidence to date that COVID-19 infection impairs semen quality and male reproductive potential,” the study as reported by CNN said.

The study said there’s significant evidence to show that sperm concentration, mobility and shape are negatively impacted by the virus.

Compared to healthy men without COVID-19, there is a significant increase in inflammation and oxidative stress in sperm cells belonging to men with COVID-19, the study found. Their sperm concentration, mobility and shape were also negatively impacted by the virus.

The study also finds that the differences in sperm count are attributable to the severity of the sickness.

It’s not surprising that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, might impact the male reproductive system, because ACE2 receptors, the “same receptors which the virus uses to gain access to the tissues of the lung, are also found in the testicles,” said Allan Pacey, a professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield in the UK

Medications used to treat COVID-19, fevers, obesity and many other factors can also impact sperm count and quality, so larger studies would need to be done to ensure that it was the virus causing the effect, Pacey continued.

Pacey said this is not new as evidence abounds that some viruses in the past have lived longer in the testicles of men after a long period of recovery.

“We know that some viruses like Zika or Ebola can remain in the testicles for a long period of time — long after the man has recovered from them. So, we need to study men in the longer term to know if this is also the case for COVID-19,”

Chair of the ethics committee at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, Dr Sigal Klipstein said “getting COVID can be potentially detrimental to their fertility, and getting the vaccine is safe and could even protect fertility by protecting you against the severe effects of COVID disease.”

This report is produced under the project: COVID-19 Response in Africa: Together for Reliable Information being implemented with funding support from the European Union.

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