Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t affect sperm, preliminary data suggests

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  • A pre-print study in Israel found no change in sperm of men who got Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The study was small, but it’s some of the first data we have on vaccines and male fertility.
  • There’s plenty of research finding the vaccines are safe for women who are pregnant or trying to be.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine does not damage sperm, according to a small new pre-print study out of Israel.

Researchers studied sperm samples from 43 men who had received their second dose of the vaccine around a month prior.

The team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found no abnormalities in the volume, concentration, or motility of the men’s sperm.

Though the study was small, and the results have yet to be peer-reviewed, the researchers believe their findings are a ringing endorsement for young men to get vaccinated, pointing to research that suggests coronavirus infection could impact male fertility.

“These preliminary results are reassuring to the young male population undergoing vaccination worldwide,” they wrote Monday on the website medRxiv, where researchers post pre-print studies. “Couples desiring to conceive should vaccinate, as vaccination does not affect sperm.”

Does COVID-19 infection affect male fertility?

A controversial paper published in the journal Reproduction in January caused a stir among scientists, suggesting there is evidence that COVID-19 impacts male fertility.

While that is plausible, Dr. Channa Jayasena, a consultant in reproductive endocrinology and andrology at Imperial College London, told CNN, the study lacked detail and convincing data.

“Being ill from any virus such as flu can temporarily drop your sperm count (sometimes to zero) for a few weeks or months. This makes it difficult to work out how much of the reductions observed in this study were specific to COVID-19 rather than just from being ill,” Jayasena said.

We know the vaccines do not affect female fertility

how mRNA vaccines work infographic
An infographic showing how mRNA vaccines are developed.

Despite some fierce misinformation campaigns, experts say it is physically impossible for the virus to impact women’s fertility.

The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna use messenger RNA (mRNA) to train the body to recognize and fight the coronavirus.

As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in an advisory notice: “These vaccines do not enter the nucleus and do not alter human DNA in vaccine recipients. As a result, mRNA vaccines cannot cause any genetic changes.”

Jerica Pitts, a spokesperson for Pfizer, reiterated the point, telling the Associated Press: “It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental protein. The sequence, however, is too short to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity.”

Experts are excited to get some data on male fertility, the virus, and the vaccine

While none of the clinical trials of the vaccines knowingly included pregnant people, there is now plenty of data to show that the vaccines are safe for women trying to conceive, people who are currently pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding.

But this Israeli study represents some of the first data on male fertility.

Speaking about the vaccines and fertility in an Insider webinar last month, Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an OB/GYN, lamented the lack of attention paid to men in this conversation.

“Most times when we think of studies, especially with something that’s so new, we do focus on people who are currently pregnant and then breastfeeding moms and the recent postpartum phase,” Shepherd said. “But many times we do have to consider the male factor of fertility and seeing if there’s any impact on sperm.”

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Fertility experts debunk 19 myths about getting pregnant and fertility

Duke: “Sex position matters.”

Eleswarapu: So, that is a myth.

“IVF guarantees pregnancy.”

Duke: Oh, boy. It’s a tough myth for patients to hear.

Eleswarapu: “Eating pineapple can increase fertility.”

Duke: Oh, that’s a good one. Pineapple by itself, if you have infertility, is unlikely to reverse your infertility.

I’m Dr. Cindy. I am a fertility specialist based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Hello,

Eleswarapu: I’m Dr. Sriram Eleswarapu, and I’m a urologist at UCLA. And today we’ll be debunking myths about infertility.

Duke: “Tight underwear is bad for sperm count.”

Eleswarapu: So, there’ve been a number of studies looking at this issue for many decades, and the inevitable question is boxers versus briefs. In truth, it doesn’t matter a whole lot, and we know that if the testicles are a little bit warmer that they are more at risk of having sperm-count issues or sperm-motility issues, but, in general, it shouldn’t matter too much. Just pick what’s comfortable.

Duke: “Sex position matters.”

Eleswarapu: So, that is a myth. No matter what position you engage in, if you ejaculate, you have the sufficient propulsion of the semen to make it up to the cervix, any way you do it.

Duke: People around the world have actually studied it, and no one position has been proven to be better than another.

Eleswarapu: “IVF guarantees pregnancy.”

Duke: Oh, boy. Yes, that is definitely a myth. And it’s a tough myth for patients to hear. IVF does present the highest chances of pregnancy, absolutely. There are a number of factors that play into IVF success. One of them has to do with the age of the eggs being used. It also has to do with the quality of the sperm and the egg when they come together. It has to do with the embryo that is ultimately formed. It also has to do with the genetics of the embryo. But then, on top of that, it has to do with the womb in which the embryo will be placed, and a number of factors are not yet fully known. So, we know the immune system plays a role. Diet, exercise probably play a role, but we’re still investigating that. Biggest thing to know is it’s not 100%.

Eleswarapu: “Stress causes miscarriages.”

I think we’re starting to get away from the term “miscarriages.” We’re starting to use the term “early pregnancy loss.” Is that right?

Duke: That’s correct. And I think it’s because “miscarriage” also comes with certain connotations where blame is also ascribed, and the truth is, both early pregnancy losses, there’s nothing the individual could have done about it at all. So now we call it early pregnancy loss before the end of the first trimester, versus second- and third-trimester pregnancy loss. We do not believe stress causes loss. Many people around the world across millennia have gotten pregnant and remain pregnant despite tremendous stress. So we know it’s not simply stress. Nowadays, though, we know the No. 1 reason for pregnancy loss is chromosomal differences in the formed embryo. And so that’s called aneuploidy. 67% of first-trimester pregnancy losses are due to chromosomal issues within the embryo itself. Other reasons would be if the thyroid was not functioning well, if vitamin D is low, if there’s a fibroid in the uterus. If you have a uterus and you’ve had two or more pregnancy losses, you should be evaluated. We always expected that it would be the individual with the womb and the eggs to be the one that gets evaluated for a pregnancy loss. Now the tide is shifting, and individuals who contribute the sperm are also being evaluated when there’s a pregnancy loss in the couple. There’s emerging data that things like DNA fragmentation, where the DNA that are normally supposed to be very tightly wrapped up in the sperm are somehow unraveled and might have little breaks in the DNA strands, and those breaks can contribute to the pregnancy loss.

“Freezing your eggs guarantees that you can have kids later.”

Myth. And the myth is in the word “guaranteed.” If you freeze your eggs, you can stop the clock. And so you’re basically freezing the youngest version of yourself at that point. However, there’s no guarantee that eggs even when frozen will thaw and yield a live-born baby. So it’s really a conversation that needs to happen with your specialist based on your age, based on your egg number.

“Sperm quality doesn’t decline with age.”

Eleswarapu: There’s a lot of data now that is showing that individuals with sperm that is older, say in the fifth, sixth, seventh decades of life and beyond, is more at risk of forming embryos that have chromosomal abnormalities. Getting exercise, eating well are things that can improve the general biology of an individual. Certainly if it’s good for the heart and it’s good for the brain, then it’s probably good for the penis and the scrotum and the testicles as well. We talked about egg freezing, but sperm freezing has its role particularly for individuals who may not be in a relationship or may not be thinking of a family at this time but later on down the road they might want to produce a family.

“It’s impossible to get pregnant after 35.”

Duke: It is possible to get pregnant after 35. The truth is, though, that the chance of pregnancy progressively declines as the age of the egg increases. And so you might find greater and greater need for fertility treatments. When you’re born, if you’re someone born with ovaries, you’d have somewhere between 1 million to 2 million eggs in those ovaries, usually. By age 30, 70% of those eggs are gone, and by age 40, 97% of those eggs are gone. At the same time, those eggs are also aging. And so what we see is that the chance of pregnancy declines very quickly, and then for some people it declines even faster. So if you have endometriosis, if you’re someone who’s maybe had surgeries of the ovaries or needed to be on medications, chemotherapy, radiation, all of those things can also further the decline in the egg number. So my recommendation is, if you have ovaries, at age 30, you should at least be asking your doctor to do a check of your egg number, or what’s called your ovarian reserve.

“The best way to get pregnant is to have sex every day.”

Eleswarapu: It comes down to the ovulatory cycles and making sure that you’re sort of timing things and tracking things, particularly if you’re trying to conceive deliberately. We always get this question, and I want to know what your thoughts are. Should the couple be trying to conceive every other day during ovulation, or every day during ovulation? I say every other day. One, we need to give the sperm and semen enough time to sort of reaccumulate so we can get those millions of sperm. The other is sperm actually survive in the female genital tract for up to five days. So once the egg is released from the ovary, think of the fallopian tube as an arm with a catcher’s mitt at the end. The catcher’s mitt captures the egg, pulls it into the arm, and then the egg sits around there for 12 to 20 hours waiting for sperm. And then if you have intercourse anywhere within the next 24 hours, sperm will also get to the egg. So that’s why we say every other day around ovulation. There is this movement now, particularly on the internet, discussing what’s called abstinence from pornography, masturbation, and orgasm, or PMO. It’s also a movement called no NoFap. And those individuals say to have the best reserve of sperm or the best sort of power with erections or orgasm, that they should conserve for days, weeks, months at a time. This stuff is not scientific at all. And, in fact, after a week of storing up, the sperm may not necessarily be healthy.

“Eating pineapple can increase fertility.”

Duke: That’s a good one. Pineapple by itself, if you have infertility, is unlikely to reverse your infertility. We know that pineapples have bromelain inside of them, which is a compound that is known to be a blood thinner to a certain degree, but it’s very, very weak, and you’d have to eat so much pineapple to even have enough bromelain to have a little effect. You should be having a meal balancing protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. So getting your usual multivitamins and folate into your diet, because folate is really important for once you’re pregnant. But technically, no, pineapple by itself does not boost fertility. Infertility, while a daunting thought, really there are lots of options available. The first step is actually an evaluation. Fertility and infertility constitute this huge spectrum, and there are many, many ways to get pregnant and many things one can do to help facilitate that. And you don’t have to stay at home feeling embarrassed about it. If you talk to a specialist like myself, like Dr. Eleswarapu, we are experienced with this and know how to treat you or direct you to the right person who can help.

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No, the coronavirus vaccine won’t make you infertile

chicago coronavirus vaccine
Dr. Marina Del Rios, from University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, receives Chicago’s first COVID-19 vaccination from Dr. Nikhila Juvvadi on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Loretto Hospital, a 122-bed medical facility in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

  • A now-blocked Facebook post that went viral claimed the coronavirus vaccine could cause infertility.
  • It suggested incorrectly that the vaccine teaches the body to attack a protein involved in placental development.
  • In reality, the protein the vaccine spurs the body to make and attack bears little resemblance to the one in the placenta. 
  • Although data is still lacking as to how the coronavirus vaccine works in pregnant women, experts expect it to be safe and say that women who are pregnant or of childbearing age should be able to get it if they want. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A post that was circulating on social media falsely claimed that Pfizer’s new coronavirus vaccine could cause infertility in women. The vaccine is “female sterilization,” an image in the post said, incorrectly attributing the myth to the “head of Pfizer research.” 

The post, which has since been blocked by Facebook as “false information,” promoted an incorrect idea that the vaccine spurs the immune system to attack both a protein in the coronavirus and also a protein involved in the formation of the placenta – the organ that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the fetus during pregnancy. 

But experts say there’s no evidence the vaccine could lead to infertility.

“Based on the way it’s made, it should be safe,” Dr. Zaher Merhi, an OB-GYN, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist, and the founder of Rejuvenating Fertility Center, told Insider. 

Screen Shot of infertility vaccine myth

The protein the vaccine teaches the body to fend off is not the same as the one involved in placental formation

According to USA Today, the post, written by an unidentifiable author, said: “The vaccine contains a spike protein (see image) called syncytin-1, vital for the formation of the human placenta in women.” 

“If the vaccine works so that we form an immune response AGAINST the spike protein, we are also training the female body to attack syncytin-1, which could lead to infertility for an unspecified duration.”

That’s not true. First, the vaccine does not contain syncytin-1, but rather mRNA: genetic instructions that spur the body to produce, and therefore recognize, the unique spike protein that the novel coronavirus uses to latch onto cells. 

While it’s true that syncytin-1 and the coronavirus’s spike protein share a small amino acid sequence, they are not interchangeable. 

“It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental protein,” Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts said in an email to the Associated Press. “The sequence, however, is too short to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity.”

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The theory also suggests that syncytin-1 is the one and only protein important for placental development, but it’s more complicated than that. A sibling protein, syncytin-2, for instance, helps prevent the mother’s immune system from attacking the fetus. 

Plus, the vaccine prompts the body to produce antibodies very similar to the natural ones produced in response to infection. If those antibodies attacked the placenta, we’d to see high rates of placental complications and miscarriages among the more than 44,000 pregnant women who’ve gotten the coronavirus, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale School of Medicine, told USA TODAY

What’s more, some people have gotten pregnant while participating in clinical trials and receiving a vaccine. These women are still being tracked, but if the vaccine prevented pregnancy, their pregnancies wouldn’t have been possible. 

Pregnant women and those who may become pregnant can get the vaccine if they want to

Pregnant women were excluded from clinical trials, so we don’t know the real-world effects of the vaccine in that population. But experts say it should be safe, since the vaccine, like the flu vaccine, does not contain live virus.

The mRNA is “not going to be able to enter the cell of the baby and cause any problem, mechanistically speaking,” Merhi told Business Insider. 

As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologies (ACOG) says in its advisory about vaccination in pregnant and lactating people, “these vaccines do not enter the nucleus and do not alter human DNA in vaccine recipients. As a result, mRNA vaccines cannot cause any genetic changes.” 

The organization, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, says pregnant women who want the vaccine should be able to get it. 

People who are in prioritized vaccination groups and are actively trying to become pregnant or are contemplating pregnancy should also get vaccinated, ACOG says. There’s no need to delay pregnancy after getting the vaccine, according to the group. 

Getting COVID-19 while pregnant puts people at a higher risk of being admitted to the intensive-care unit, needing ventilators or life support, and dying than patients who aren’t pregnant, according to a November CDC report. So Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes, previously told Insider anyone who could get pregnant should be a top priority for vaccination.

“We’ve got to make sure we make an active effort … to ensure that childbearing-age women, especially minorities, are able to get the vaccine even before they get pregnant,” he said. 

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