Less than two weeks after the release of research from the University of Utah (U of U) showing that the coronavirus is unlikely to spread through sexual contact, a new study out of China is suggesting the opposite. Posted on the Journal of American Medicine’s peer-reviewed open-access site on Thursday, the study analyzed 38 semen samples of men with the coronavirus in central China and found the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in six of them.
Unlike the U of U study, which was conducted on men one month after their COVID-19 diagnosis, the JAMA one examined the semen of men who were recently or currently hospitalized. The majority of the positive results came from severely ill patients, with four out of the six positive samples coming from individuals considered to be “at the acute stage of infection.” The other two positive cases were among men who had “reached clinical recovery” — a finding the researchers deem “particularly noteworthy.”
The authors acknowledge that the presence of the virus in semen is not necessarily unusual. Researchers have identified 27 other viruses in semen of those infected with certain diseases, including Ebola, Zika and HIV. The authors add that given the sample size, more testing is needed. “This study is limited by the small sample size and the short subsequent follow-up,” they write. “Therefore, further studies are required with respect to the detailed information about virus shedding, survival time, and concentration in semen.”
Dr. James M. Hotaling, professor at University of Utah Health and an author on the earlier study, says the new research doesn’t necessarily contradict earlier findings. “They’re just two totally different cohorts of patients, it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Hotaling tells Yahoo Life. “Ours was, generally speaking, people with mild forms of COVID-19 who were on average 31 days out from diagnosis.”
According to a chart from the JAMA study, four out of the six patients who tested positive were still hospitalized at the time. Of the other two, one reported being 12 days from the onset of symptoms and another 16 days. Hotaling says it’s unclear exactly how many individuals in the U of U study were hospitalized (the data came from China as well), but that it appears most were not.
U of U’s study, published in late April, had suggested that there may be a “threshold for sexual transmission” — meaning that those who are super sick could carry the virus in semen. Hotaling says that may be what is being shown here. “Our study was showing whether COVID-19 lingers in the semen when people are in [full] recovery. And the answer is, no, we don’t see it,” he says. “If you want to have intercourse while you’re super sick … I mean, most people aren’t having sexual relations while they’re in the ICU or in the hospital, but you know, from this study it looks like in a small percentage of patients the virus is there.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not issued any official guidelines in terms of sexual contact during the coronavirus pandemic. But in a post from the American Sexual Health Association’s “ask the experts” forum, infectious disease expert Dr. Hunter Handsfield suggests proceeding with caution.
“There are no data so far to prove this, but common sense indicates it’s a high-risk activity and that sex with multiple partners is especially high risk. (The same is true of other infections — colds, flu, viral gastroenteritis. And in some parts of the world, serious infections like Ebola and Zika. All these can be viewed as ‘sexually transmissible’ even though they are not classified as ‘sexually transmitted),’’ Handsfield writes. “Presumably the mechanism of sexual transmission of COVID-19 is mostly through respiratory secretions … but having sex is pretty much impossible without potential exposure to respiratory secretions and/or contaminated hands and fingers.”