Coronavirus Invades Cells in the Penis and Testicles of Monkeys, Study Says

A new study in rhesus monkeys shows that the coronavirus can infect the tissues of the male genital tract. The findings suggest that symptoms such as erectile dysfunction reported by some Covid patients may be caused directly by the virus, rather than the inflammation or fever that often accompanies the disease.

The study found that the coronavirus infected the prostate, penis, testicles, and surrounding blood vessels in three male rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were examined with a whole-body scan specifically designed to detect foci of infection.

Scientists who expected to find the coronavirus in places like the lungs but didn’t know where else they would find it was somewhat surprised by the discovery.

“The signal that jumped out for us was complete spread through the male reproductive tract,” said Thomas Hope, senior author of the paper and professor of cell and developmental biology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “We had no idea we’d find it there.”

When his team initially viewed a scanned image of the first animal, one of the scientists asked, “What gender was the animal?” Dr. Hope recalls.

“I said, ‘I think a woman.’ She said, “I don’t think it’s a woman.” I moved down to the bottom of the image, which was almost cropped, and the testicles were brightly lit., And the signal in the penis was out of sight,” said Dr. Hope.

The paper was based on results from just three monkeys, but the results were consistent, Dr. Hope said. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed for publication in a journal and was posted on Monday on the bioRxiv website.

The work was carried out at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Louisiana. The researchers don’t know if the monkeys had symptoms consistent with a viral male genital tract infection, such as low testosterone, low sperm count, pain, or sexual dysfunction, Dr. Hope said.

Studies have shown that between 10 and 20 percent of men infected with the coronavirus have symptoms associated with male reproductive tract dysfunction.

Men infected with the virus are three to six times more likely than others to develop erectile dysfunction, which is considered an indicator of the so-called long-term Covid.

Patients have also reported symptoms such as testicular pain, decreased sperm count and sperm quality, decreased fertility, and hypogonadism, a condition in which the testicles do not produce enough testosterone, resulting in decreased sex drive, sexual dysfunction, and reduced fertility.

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Dr. Hope noted that other viruses are known to affect fertility. “Mumps has historically been best known for causing infertility,” he said. “The Zika virus gets into the testicles and infects the testicles, and Ebola can do that too.”

Dr. Hope warned that even if such complications from a coronavirus infection occur in a small proportion of men, millions of people could suffer from sexual and reproductive health problems after the pandemic, simply because the virus has infected so many people around the world.

He urged men to get vaccinated and undergo a medical examination if they were concerned about their sexual or reproductive health.

The positron emission tomography technology used in the new study was developed to detect foci of coronavirus infection in a living animal. The technology allows repeating sequential scans of the animal, tracking how the virus enters the body and how it is cleared.

Dr. Hope then plans to determine if the testicles are the reservoir for the coronavirus, as some scientists have suggested. He will also consider whether the virus infects the tissues of the female reproductive system.

The hope is to use this information to develop treatments that will mitigate the impact of the pandemic on fertility. The scan also has the potential to locate the virus in patients and tailor treatment accordingly.

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