Heather Kilpatrick has been busy lately. Since the United States began sliding into COVID-19 lockdown mode, the operations manager for at-home sperm collection firm CryoChoice says the company has “seen a lot of inquiries come in from people scared about coronavirus.” But rather than just checking in or canceling orders, many of them seem to want to make purchases.
According to Kilpatrick, CryoChoice has seen sales jump by as much as 20 percent in recent weeks. Staff at the at-home sperm collection start-up Legacy claim they’ve seen up to 10 times their usual order volume in recent days. And the minds behind Dadi, another start-up in the field, say they have not only seen a threefold lift in raw sales, but that more people than ever before are buying five years of sperm storage up front.
The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the U.S. economy. But the pain isn’t equally distributed. And at-home sperm collection companies—which send men preservable sample collection kits and return postage, run lab tests on returned cups, and promise to cryogenically store viable seed—appear to be enjoying a big leg up.
Tom Smith, the CEO of Dadi, claimed to be as surprised as anyone, telling The Daily Beast he “actually thought there’d be a significant drop-off” in business as Americans went into austerity mode.
Some of this spike may just be at-home kit companies absorbing brick-and-mortar fertility clinics’ business during a terrifying pandemic. Many facilities are trying to keep their doors open for folks like cancer patients who still need to start treatments that could leave them infertile. But quite a few clinics have either decided or been told by authorities that they are not essential services, scaling down operations or closing their doors entirely. Even clinics that have tried to stay open are increasingly reaching out to at-home collection companies for kits they can send to patients at high risk of contracting COVID-19, so that they can avoid unnecessary trips outside.
But at-home collection companies canvassed by The Daily Beast appear to be getting a big chunk of their pandemic business bump from people who weren’t looking to bank sperm before the crisis. This newfound concern about saving spunk likely stems from emerging fears about the virus’s potential effects on fertility.
As of now, there is no evidence that coronavirus can have a long-term impact on fertility, in men or women. Nor has the virus been detected in semen or vaginal fluid. However, from late February to mid-March, stories emerged about a theory put forward by Chinese doctors, based on speculation rather than evidence, that COVID-19 may affect the testes and so perhaps could impact male fertility. A study released, and hyped, in late March further suggested the prolonged stress people are feeling now could have a long-term harmful effect on sperm. Chatter has spread online about the reality that other viruses, including SARS, another coronavirus, can potentially cause orchitis, or testicular inflammation, as well.
Fertility experts have acknowledged in public reports that serious illnesses and high fevers can negatively impact sperm. They have also acknowledged that, since we’re still learning about this new virus, we can’t say for sure what its total short- or long-term fertility impacts may be.
But most experts don’t tend to see much cause for serious concern here. University of California–Los Angeles male fertility expert Jesse Mills told The Daily Beast “the effect of a fever or serious illness on sperm production usually lasts about three months,” then clears up. And Matt Coward, the director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at University of North Carolina Fertility, doubts the virus will have long-term negative impacts on male fertility.
Men seem to be worried anyway.
Alex Tatem, an Indianapolis-based reproductive urologist, told The Daily Beast many of his patients have reached out to ask him and his colleagues about their coronavirus fertility concerns. Peter Nieves of WINFertility, a health benefits solutions company that recently announced a partnership with Dadi, said they’ve witnessed “a high demand in calls, increasingly focused on the stress surrounding family-planning next steps after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.” He added that “one-hundred percent of all emotional coaching consults by our nurse care managers have included a discussion or mention of coronavirus.”
Anxieties are especially high among people who’ve been trying, or struggling, to get pregnant, according to Mills. Some, worried about the effects of aging on their fertility, fear losing even a few months to a fever. “You can’t say, ‘Don’t worry about the fever now, you’ll be better in three months,’ to a fertility patient,” added Grace Centola, Dadi’s science director. “They will be very upset. They’ll go crazy. Because to them, time is of the essence now.” Some don’t want to take any risk, no matter how remote, of long-term sperm damage. So they’re making moves they might not have before the pandemic to save sperm right now, while they’re still uninfected, or at least asymptomatic.
Most remarkable is that even people who until recently weren’t thinking about having kids have started to place orders for kits, industry players said. Kilpatrick described a particular surge in orders from people in so-called frontline jobs like first responders and health-care workers. This crisis “puts into perspective for young adults what they might be planning for the rest of their lives,” added Centola.
Of course, many women may be experiencing the pandemic through the same lens. In late February, a New York City fertility doctor noticed a 25-percent spike in calls to his office from people looking to freeze their eggs because of coronavirus fears. But “egg freezing is fairly invasive,” as Tatem noted, so there’s no [comparable] at-home outlet for that demand in the wake of widespread clinic closures. The Daily Beast reached out to two dozen fertility clinics to ask about egg freezing during the pandemic. Most appear to be following guidelines issued by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine last month, which included the recommendation that “non-medically urgent gamete preservation treatments, such as egg freezing, should be suspended for the time being.”
Although male fertility experts tend to agree it’s best to collect sperm samples in a clinic so they’re fresher when frozen, they also generally concur that at-home collection kits are reliable. At-home collection companies claim they can still send and receive kits, process results, and bank sperm during the crisis, even in the face of rising demand for their services. Collection kits and tests cost upwards of $100, and storage can tack on $100 or more per year, which is often cheaper than in-clinic services, albeit far from a negligible expense for many, especially at a time of surging joblessness.
“When the world around you is going crazy,” Tatem added, “just the idea that you can grasp something—have control over any of your life—that [may be] worth the couple hundred dollars it costs to bank some sperm.”
But Coward and other experts expressed concern about potential alarmism in direct-to-consumer sperm banking advertising. Some kit companies have, for example, been trying to popularize the idea that men have a biological clock—that after age 35, their sperm quality starts to degrade significantly every eight months. This argument, Mills believes, “borders on fearmongering.”
So before spooked American men decide to act on their coronavirus anxieties and become a part of the at-home testing kit boom they’ve bred, they may do well to take a breath. “Just really consider everything that’s involved,” Tatem said, “and consider the fact that we don’t have any evidence that COVID-19 can cause long-term infertility. If you think about that and still say, ‘I’m really anxious about it and this will be good for my peace of mind,’ then absolutely, it’s something worth pursuing.”
“But,” he added, “If you look at it and think, ‘Maybe this isn’t something I really need now, so I might be better off taking that money and donating it to the local mask drive,’ that might go a lot further.”