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COVID-19: a sexually transmitted infection?

by Cédric Ayisa - June 15, 2020   449 Views   4 min
COVID-19: a sexually transmitted infection?

Claim

Evidence shows that Covid-19 cannot be sexually transmitted.

Verdict

Unsubstantiated (insufficient data)

The title of a statement published on 22 April 2020 on the University of Utah website states that evidence shows that COVID-19 is not sexually transmitted. This claim is unsubstantiated.

Several limitations to the study 

The title of the statement attempts to summarize the results of a study published on April 7, 2020 in the journal Fertility and Sterility of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, which shows that the virus that causes COVID-19 is not found in the semen of patients who were infected but recovered. The study was conducted by American and Chinese scientists on 34 Chinese patients 31 days after a positive diagnosis of COVID-19. It revealed no traces of the virus in their semen.

In the study, the authors admit that the small size of their sample does not allow conclusions to be drawn. They list a series of other limitations, such as the mild symptoms of COVID-19 in the patients tested, the study of only one semen sample per person (when much more extensive testing of multiple samples would be required to reach a firmer conclusion), and the absence of a hormone profile of the patients, among limitations. 

A title that does not reflect the conclusion of the authors of the study 

Moreover, the title of the statement that we fact-checked does not fully reflect the study's findings. Indeed, because of the limitations of the study, the authors themselves conclude that their results are unsubstantiated and that it is impossible to rule out the possibility that the virus that causes COVID-19 is found in semen and therefore transmitted sexually. The title of the press release is not based on the researchers' entire study, only on results which, according to the researchers themselves, are neither solid nor conclusive.

So, is COVID-19 sexually transmitted? 

Another study was conducted in January 2020 and February 2020 by researchers in Beijing on 38 Chinese patients - another very small sample. The results indicated that six patients (16% of the total sample) had traces of COVID-19 in their semen, including four patients who were still in the acute phase of the disease and two patients who were in recovery. Again, given the small sample size, it is too early to suggest that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be sexually transmitted. But these results contrast with those of the previous study, which did not find COVID-19 in the semen of patients with a similar sample size.

Health authorities are unanimous: COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) states that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be contracted through close contact with an infected person, through respiratory droplets, through contact with infected surfaces, and through hand contact with the mouth, nose or eyes before washing hands.  

As stated by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), scientists are not yet able to say that traces of COVID-19 found in semen, urine, vomit or breast milk are "viable". As for its presence in semen, scientists say more studies, with a larger sample size, will be needed to determine whether these traces of COVID-19 can affect reproduction and transmission of the virus through sexual intercourse. The World Health Organization also quotes a study that showed the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in feces but did not confirm fecal-oral transmission. 

A theoretical risk of transmission  

That being said, the mechanism by which the virus is able to infect cells in the gastrointestinal tract should be considered in the context of sexual practices. This is because droplets of saliva and feces are capable of transporting active virus particles. ACE II receptors, targeted by the sars CoV2 virus, are just as common in the respiratory tract as they are in the gastrointestinal and rectal tracts. Despite the lack of clinical studies, there could, in theory, be a risk of contagion of COVID-19 through sexual relations, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology last April.

Our verdict is that the title of the verified press release is unsubstantiated and even misleading. Two conflicting studies with small sample sizes and significant limitations are not sufficient to reach a conclusion. A theory on the potential for sexual transmission exists, but is also unproven. It is currently impossible to state that COVID-19 cannot be sexually transmitted.  

Health authorities and researchers agree that more studies are needed to systematically examine the possibility that COVID-19 is transmitted by other means. This would have enormous implications for public health measures and public messaging. 

Beware of misleading titles  

The titles of news articles and press releases are intended to summarize what a text says and to convince readers to read it. In this age where speed is of the essence, many people simply scroll through the headlines without reading the content or going back to read the original comments. Misleading headlines (whether or not they are intentional) contribute to misinformation and can lead to unfortunate and even dangerous situations.

Although comprehensive studies on the risks of sexual transmission of COVID-19 are not yet available, it is recommended to avoid physical contact of less than two metres with people who do not live in the same household as you. In the case of sexual intercourse, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies should also be prevented by using condoms or other forms of contraception recommended by doctors. 

Our goal is to provide you with fact checks that are as accurate as and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed crucial information, please CONTACT US.

  Claim

University of Utah Health

Organization
Evidence shows that Covid-19 cannot be sexually transmitted.

Verdict:

Unsubstantiated (insufficient data)

 June 15, 2020


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