Commentary

Exploring the relationship of COVID-19 vaccines and fertility


 

Introduction

Amidst an aggressive vaccination campaign for COVID-19, misinformation has spread over the Internet, affecting public perception and making some people hesitant to participate in ongoing immunization campaigns. Of chief concern are issues pertaining to fertility or viability of sperm – information circulating on social networks posits that the coronavirus vaccine may influence infertility in men, which, according to physicians, is not grounded in reality. From the perspective of evidence-based medicine, there is a dearth of information suggesting an untoward effect of the vaccine on male fertility. The risk of adverse reactions arising from approved vaccines is negligible, with mild, albeit controllable, side effects demonstrated by patients in clinical trials. Therefore, there is no plausible reason for the general public to avoid vaccinations.1

Infertility following vaccination

The source of confusion can be traced back to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; the general public has conflated a side effect of the virus, namely, infertility and erectile dysfunction, with that of the vaccine.2 According to Ranjith Ramasamy, MD, director of the urology program at Miller, “We were the first to demonstrate that the COVID virus, itself, can affect male fertility and be a potential cause for erectile dysfunction. We are now the first to examine if there is any impact of the COVID vaccine on male fertility potential, which we did not find.”3

Coronavirus can indeed cause significant damage to the testicular tissue of infected men by means of mediating ACE2 expression on Leydig and Sertoli cells of the testis. It should be noted that COVID-19 may potentially attack any type of cell in the body that expresses the enzyme ACE2. However, it is particularly harmful to cells with high levels of expression of this enzyme, such as testicular cells. The spermatogenesis process can be affected, thereby posing a risk to male fertility.4

Expanding on the theme of fertility during the pandemic, a number of false claims5-7 about the vaccine and its overall effect on the placenta and fertility have also emerged as a contentious topic for debate on social media; doctors continue to explain why the theories are not reasonable or a cause for concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides recommendations on COVID-19 vaccinations for pregnant and/or lactating women and encourages a shared decision process involving risk/benefit assessment with the prescribing physician.5 Pregnant women, especially those with underlying comorbid conditions, are susceptible to developing severe symptom manifestations of COVID-19 with the disease also being associated with an increased likelihood of premature birth. As far as lactating women are concerned, the evidence thus far has indicated that the risk of side effects of the vaccine is very low, suggesting that these women could be vaccinated.5

The vaccine is the best option

While more studies are needed to ascertain the relationship between COVID-19 and male infertility, the vaccine is currently the best option for those who are concerned about their fertility from exposure to the coronavirus. Because of delayed wholesale acceptance of vaccines by the general population, clinicians should continue to emphasize the importance of preventive care with respect to disease exposure.6

In addition, those who are concerned with fertility can opt for ways to preserve their reproductive capacity, such as the removal of semen for freezing sperm, albeit with adherence to sperm-washing procedures to preclude cross-contamination from viruses.8,9 For the preservation of sperm, the noninvasive method is often performed, preferably collected in several samples. Then, the semen is cryopreserved.8 In some instances, the sperm can also be removed directly from the testicles with a simple needle or by means of a minor surgical procedure.

A wait and try approach is advocated by clinicians for individuals who have already experienced COVID-19 symptoms and are therefore concerned about the prospect of childbearing.10 If the couple is unable to conceive after a year of trying, it is recommended that they consult a reproductive specialist; the clinician can carry out a comprehensive evaluation and order a series of tests to identify the source of the problem, indicating whether there are alternative methods for helping the couple to start a family (addressing the underlying factors involved in infertility, or treating via assisted reproduction procedures, such as in vitro fertilization).11

Dr. Aman is faculty member at the biology department of City Colleges of Chicago, and a postdoctoral researcher at the International Maternal and Child Health Foundation (IMCHF). She disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Islam is a medical writer for the IMCHF, Montreal, is based in New York, and disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Mr. Choudhry is a research assistant at the IMCHF and he has no disclosures. Dr. Zia Choudhry is the chief scientific officer and head of the department of mental health and clinical research at the IMCHF. He has no disclosures.

References

1. Berry SD et al. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2021 May;69(5):1140-6.

2. Achua JK et al. World J Men’s Health. 2021 Jan;39(1):65-74.

3. Broderick JM. Urology Times. 2021 June.

4. Huang C et al. Andrology. 2021 Jan;9(1):80-7.

5. Sajjadi NB et al. J Osteopath Med. 2021 Apr 12;121(6):583-7.

6. Sallam M et al. Vaccines. 2021 Jan;9(1):42.

7. Islam MS et al. PloS One. 2021 May 12;16(5):e0251605.

8. Tesarik J. J Fertil Preserv. 2021;2:art246111.

9. Adiga SK et al. Reprod BioMed Online. 2020 Dec;41(6):991-7.

10. FAQs related to COVID-19. Q: If I get sick or test positive for COVID-19, when is it safe to become pregnant? American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

11. Cross C. Wellness and Prevention: Why can’t I get pregnant? John Hopkins Medicine.

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