Covid invades cells in monkeys’ penis and testicles, study says

The coronavirus can infect tissue in the male genital tract, new research on rhesus monkeys shows. The finding suggests that symptoms such as erectile dysfunction reported by some Covid patients may be caused directly by the virus, not the inflammation or fever that often accompanies the disease.

The study showed that the coronavirus infected the prostate, penis, testicles and surrounding blood vessels in three male rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were examined with whole-body scans designed specifically to look for sites of infection.

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

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

When his team initially looked at a scanned image of the first animal, one of the scientists asked, “What sex was the animal again?” dr. Hope remembered.

“I said, ‘I think feminine.’ She said, “I don’t think it’s a woman.” I went to the bottom of the image, which was almost cut off, and the testicles were brightly lit. And the signal in the penis was off the radar,” said Dr. hope.

The paper was based on findings in just three monkeys, but the findings were consistent, said Dr. hope. The research has not yet been peer-reviewed for publication in a journal and was posted on the bioRxiv site on Monday.

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

About 10 to 20 percent of men infected with the coronavirus have symptoms related to dysfunction of the male sex organs, studies have reported.

Men infected with the virus are three to six times more likely than others to develop erectile dysfunction, which is believed to be 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 testes produce insufficient amounts of testosterone, leading to low sex drive, sexual dysfunction and impaired fertility.

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Other viruses are known to negatively impact fertility, Dr. hope up. “Mumps is historically most famous for causing infertility,” he said. “The Zika virus goes to the testicles and infects the testicles, and so can Ebola.”

Even if only a small proportion of men experience such complications after a coronavirus infection, millions of people could suffer from impaired sexual and reproductive health in the wake of the pandemic simply because the virus has infected so many people around the world, warned Dr. hope.

He urged men to get vaccinated and seek a medical evaluation if they are concerned about their sexual or reproductive health.

The positron emission tomography technology used in the new study was designed to identify the sites of coronavirus infection in a live animal. The technology makes it possible to perform repeated, sequential scans of an animal, tracking how the virus makes its way through the body and how it is cleared.

dr. Hope plans to determine whether the testicles are a reservoir for the coronavirus, as some scientists have believed. He will also look to see if the virus is infecting tissue in the female reproductive system.

The hope is to use the information to develop treatments that will reduce the impact of the pandemic on fertility. The scans may also be able to detect the location of the virus in patients and help tailor treatments appropriately.

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