November 8, 2021

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers says one reason he didn’t want to take a COVID-19 vaccine is that he wants to be a father and, he says, “To my knowledge, there’s been zero long-term studies around sterility or fertility issues around the vaccine, so that was definitely something that I was worried about and it went through my mind.”

Journalists, I have seen that sound bite quoted over and over during the weekend, and I think it is a disservice to allow Rodgers to raise such a concern and not dig into what the research says. He raises concerns that a lot of unvaccinated people voice and there actually is clinical evidence to address those concerns. Don’t just let his questions hang in the air as though they are unanswerable.

Let’s address Rodgers’ statement in parts.

If you think of “long term” as years, he is right that there are no long-term studies because the virus and the vaccines have not been around that long. But the studies that have been done around fertility, pregnancy and pregnancy losses have resulted in the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s conclusion that the risk from COVID-19 is greater than the risk from vaccines.

The rumors raising concerns about fertility began even before there was a fully vetted vaccine. Scientific American recalls:

One origin of fertility falsehoods about the vaccines may be a letter co-written by a former Pfizer researcher and sent to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in December 2020. The two authors asked that all vaccine studies be suspended. They claimed that vaccine-induced antibodies against a protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter human cells might also attack another human protein needed for embryo implantation. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID.

Researchers have said all along that they believed two of the three approved vaccines did not have the capacity to change human fertility because the vaccines contain mRNA and not the live virus, and the vaccine affects a protein spike, not DNA.

Daniel C. Gonzalez, a medical student at the University of Miami School of Medicine, conducted a study that examined the effect of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines on sperm quality. That study included 45 men. It found:

  • 12 of the men measured an insignificant decrease in sperm concentration and total motile sperm count.
  • 33 of the men had no significant change after vaccination.
  • After the second vaccination, the median sperm concentration significantly increased, and semen volume and sperm motility also significantly increased. But the study says that may have more to do with a longer period of abstinence before the second dose, not the vaccine itself.

The researchers did note that one man had a significantly lower sperm count after vaccination, but the study could not say if the vaccination had anything to do with that change. The study summary said “vaccines do not negatively impact male fertility potential.”

But again, to Rodgers’ point, it is not a long-term study and it is a small sample. Some vaccine-doubters point out that side effects of the vaccine could include a fever, and fever can affect sperm production. Again, true and true. But, the CDC says, “there is no current evidence that fever after COVID-vaccination affects sperm production.”

While there is no evidence that vaccines cause male infertility, being infected with COVID-19 could affect male reproductive health. Scientific American notes a COVID-19 infection may cause erectile dysfunction:

Ranjith Ramasamy, director of reproductive urology at the University of Miami, has published several studies describing the novel coronavirus in penile and testicular tissue and its effects on erectile dysfunction. He and his colleagues also looked at the potential effects of vaccines in these areas and found none.

That study, which again was a small sample, showed COVID-19 affects blood vessels and the effects of the virus can stay in the body for nine months. SARS-CoV-2 also lingers in the testes and autopsies on deceased COVID-19 patients found the virus lingered in patient’s testes.

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine says, in a headline, “Covid Vaccine Does Not Cause Female Sterility.” The CDC notes:

A recent report using the v-safe safety monitoring system data showed that 4,800 people had a positive pregnancy test after receiving a first dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (i.e., Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna).9 Another report using data from 8 U.S. healthcare systems documented more than 1,000 people who completed COVID-19 vaccination (with any COVID-19 vaccine) before becoming pregnant.

Various studies around in-vitro fertilization (although limited to fewer than 200 patients) show similar pregnancy rates between both vaccinated and unvaccinated women.

On the other hand, pregnant women who get infected with COVID-19 may experience severe complications. Doctors call them “highly increased risk” patients. And Scientific American points to another consideration:

The immune system effects of pregnancy itself make an infection about five times more likely, says Jane Frederick, a reproductive endocrinology and fertility specialist and medical director of HRC Fertility in California. “You get infected more quickly, and pregnant women can go downhill fast,” she adds.

People should take the opportunity to get vaccinated before conceiving, but the vaccine is safe across all three trimesters of pregnancy, says Mary Rosser, director of integrated women’s health at the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In early August, 22 medical groups released a joint statement saying that “the best way for pregnant individuals to protect themselves against the potential harm from COVID-19 infection is to be vaccinated.”

Healio quotes Dr. Linda G. Kahn, an assistant professor in the departments of pediatrics and population health at NYU Langone Health:

  • Nearly half of mothers in New York City who had been trying to become pregnant before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped trying during the first few months of the outbreak
  • A third of the women who were thinking about becoming pregnant before the pandemic but had not yet begun trying said they were no longer considering it.
  • The researchers further noted early evidence of a birthrate decline in the United States during the pandemic.
  • The nation saw approximately 300,000 fewer births in 2020 than experts had expected based on annual fertility trends, with a particular drop during the last 2 months of the year, which corresponds with fewer conceptions at the pandemic’s beginning in March.

MORE FROM POYNTER: What is the media saying about the unvaccinated Aaron Rodgers?

Journalists should address his statements about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, too

We now know what Rodgers meant when he lied about being vaccinated and said he was “immunized.” (Remember, reporters asked him, “Have you been vaccinated?” and the first words of his response were, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized …”)

Rodgers, who tested positive for COVID-19, said Friday, “I’ve been taking monoclonal antibodies, ivermectin, zinc, vitamin C and D, HCQ, and I feel pretty incredible.” Again, journalists have an obligation to not just leave things there but to dive into what we know about these drugs.

The FDA has cautioned people not to take hydroxychloroquine outside of a hospital setting because of heart rhythm risks. The FDA warns, “This includes reports of serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues, including blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries, and liver problems and failure.” The FDA says clinical drug trials have shown these medicines (hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine) “showed no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery.”

Ivermectin is an FDA-approved drug but it is not approved as an antiviral medication. Rodgers said he has an allergy to “one of the ingredients” of the mRNA vaccines, and that he didn’t trust Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, so he sought alternatives.

NPR and Kaiser Health News teamed up on a story that looked at how Republican politicians are pushing to allow doctors to prescribe ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment even though it is not approved for that purpose:

The pleas to public officials have been building. And now they’re beginning to act, largely to satisfy their conservative constituents.

Ivermectin is a generic drug that has been used for decades to treat river blindness, scabies and even head lice. Veterinarians also use it, in different formulations and dosages, to treat animals for parasites like worms.

After the pandemic began, scientists did launch some clinical trials to see if ivermectin could help as a treatment for COVID. Some of those are still ongoing. But most doctors won’t currently prescribe it as a COVID treatment, citing the poor quality of the studies to date, and two notorious “preprint” studies that were later taken off the Internet because of inaccurate and flawed data.

Many Americans remain convinced that ivermectin could be beneficial, and some politicians appear to be listening to them, rather than the current scientific consensus.

This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

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