Androgenic Anxiety and COVID-19

sperm quality
Normal (left) and abnormal forms of sperm

Early this morning, January 1, 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed

Thus begins Children of Men, a dystopian novel by P.D. James (1992). A sudden and unexplained loss of human fertility tipped the world toward apocalypse. Whereas the book held testes to be responsible, the movie version directed by Alfonso Cuaron switched the cause to gynecology, sparing those precious nuts from blame!

It’s possible for a scientist to suspend disbelief in science fiction, but he/ she always prefers to have facts. I had a professional interest in fertility, both female and male. When I first read about a dip in sperm counts, I dismissed it as a statistical quirk or fiction, but no longer. A study combining 185 studies amounting to 42,000 men found average sperm counts have dropped almost 60% in 40 years to 2011 in Western cultures. The trend continues. The paper didn’t report sperm quality (depicted above), a pity because ours is much poorer than in any other species.

The cause is unknown although experts offer similar suggestions to James—lifestyle and/ or pollution. The average count has fallen below 50 million per milliliter, the range of subfertility. While worrying for people who plan to start a family, I wonder what else it portends. Not a plunging population, but possibly raising other alarms if sperm are honest biomarkers.

During development, sperm are shorn of the apparatus that protects and repairs other cells. Short-lived, they only live a couple of days under the best conditions. They could be harmed by toxins in testicular fluids or further along from glandular secretions that contribute to semen. Bad enough if only these specialized cells are harmed, but what if the damage is already done to their stem cell parents? If they are vulnerable to a hidden threat perhaps other cells are affected, and in women as well as men. Could discovery of the affliction of sperm lead to a better understanding of today’s prevalence of some chronic diseases and impacted immune systems?

One in four men who develop mumps have orchitis as fluid builds up to create pressure inside the rigid capsule of testes. Hence, they lose fertility. That the MMR vaccine has greatly reduced the risk of the disease makes the population-wide decline in sperm counts more striking.

But what role for other airborne RNA viruses, especially from the onslaught in recent SARS epidemics and now a pandemic? Cells in testes and ovaries express the ACE-2 receptor, the spike protein that binds the SARS-COVID-19 virus so it can step into cells. A recent study at Columbia University, New York, reported only one covid patient with a low sperm count and virions in his semen, so the risk of infertility or sexual transmission of covid seems slight. Science is still pending a final decision but already concluded the vaccine does no harm to fertility, quashing anxieties in the media.

The human population won’t crash even if every living person became infertile overnight. Vast numbers of semen samples are stored in freezers around the world and frozen cells are good for decades if not centuries. Besides, a few sperm can be found in almost every clinically sterile testis, all that is needed for fatherhood by injecting eggs using the ICSI technique launched the same year as James published her book.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Photo: Inge Curtis

These tiny birds look like cute Christmas tree decorations. Inge photographed this male and female who probably arrived recently in Virginia as winter residents or transients. Ruby-crowned Kinglets breed in the north and west where they announce their territory with a remarkably loud song for a petite bird. The male on the left has a red stripe on his crown which he hasn’t elevated.

Bonchurch through Time

Bonchurch, Isle of Wight
G.H. Thompson, 1920

My great grandma bought this watercolor by a minor artist of an Isle of Wight scene a century ago. It has hung in our family homes ever since.

A housemaid carrying a basket is walking up a winding lane scoured by cart tracks. The English Channel peeps above trees and shrubbery turning gold in autumn. Although I know most corners of the Island where I was born, I couldn’t identify the scene and began to doubt it existed except in the artist’s head.

But walking up Bonchurch Shute with my cousin, she turned back and exclaimed, “This is it!”

Bonchurch Shute
Bonchurch Shute, Isle of Wight

Her artist’s eye matched the scene to the remembered painting—the angle of the bend and old walls on either side, although the sea is now obscured by vegetative growth. The revelation stirred questions. Who was she? Did she work as a servant for local gentry? Was she known to my family?

If the maid came back to life, I doubt she would notice much change in the scene. Grand Victorian villas still grace a road previously the residences or lodgings of great literary figures. Charles Dickens wrote part of David Copperfield in Winterbourne House, the poet Algernon Swinburne lived in East Dene, and Tennyson visited from his Farringford home. John Keats and Lewis Carroll had local associations too.

I’m sure they all visited the ancient church nearby, supposed to be founded by St. Boniface in the 700s. Outside the church, a noticeboard announces to the occasional tourist who ventures down the road that it was rebuilt in 1070 and still serves the community. Yes, Rebuilt!

Old Church, Bonchurch, IOW
The ancient Church of St. Boniface, Bonchurch

Standing alone in the churchyard, I only heard a gurgling stream and the murmur of the tide working pebbles on the shore beyond a screen of trees. It’s a place to feel cast back in time in a setting that has hardly changed in a millennium. Even the stone church looks resolute against decay, although the Norman frescoes inside have faded, as happens to every human artefact.

Forty generations have passed through the porch, from anonymous medieval peasants to a Stuart king to local gentry and their servants up to the present day. There is satisfaction in knowing where you belong, or at least in sharing a scene known to generations of family and friends.

In another century, I expect the old church will look much the same because places of great antiquity or rarity deserve strenuous preservation. If my descendants visit they might find the setting helps to imagine us.

But elsewhere the world rushes ever faster, transforming landscapes and rebuilding ‘better.’ The acceleration seems unstoppable. Although sometimes grumbling about development, we are reluctant to oppose progress, knowing how it has benefited prosperity, health, and security. But there is always loss in gain.

If in a hundred years family members turn the scrapbook of photos we took at the Shute last month I guess the location will be harder to pinpoint than when we identified where a maid posed for an artist in 1920. I guess the old houses and expansive gardens will be gone, the seashore crept closer, vegetation altered by a warmer climate, and traffic we can’t yet imagine. There won’t be the same moment of revelation for a great, great grandchild to exclaim, “I know where they took that photo! Let’s see where our ancestors stood and what they saw.”

The loss of that kind of connection seems trivial, but an example of a broad and common experience. A poverty of belonging. We become strangers, even in our own land.