New guidance has called for fertility clinics in the UK to minimise treatment amid the coronavirus pandemic.
UK fertility clinics have been asked to consider, but not ordered, halting fertility treatment services. While it will not be possible for most clinics to close completely due to their legal responsibility to maintain stored frozen embryos and gametes, they are asked to reduce their services to a minimum.
The guidance, issued on Wednesday by the British Fertility Society (BFS) and the Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists (ARCS), states that 'it is expected that UK licensed fertility centres will now be working to suspend treatments'.
This includes IVF, frozen embryo transfer, surgical sperm retrieval, intrauterine insemination (IUI) and ovulation induction procedures. The guidance is in line with recommendations from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), who have advised all those considering fertility treatment to 'avoid becoming pregnant at this time'.
The news comes after Belfast's Regional Fertility Centre postponed fertility treatment for 33 patients last week following advice from the Belfast Health Trust (see BioNews 1039).
The BFS and ARCS cited the promotion of social distancing and lack of long-term evidence on the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and pregnancy as the rationale underlying their recommendations. They also urged fertility clinics to consider their 'wider social responsibility' to an already stretched NHS, as fertility treatment may cause complications in some patients.
The new measures have caused uncertainty for many undergoing or considering fertility treatment, with no indication of when the restrictions will be lifted. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Tracey Bambrough, co-founder of the magazine IVF Babble, said: 'For people who may already be experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, the coronavirus has created an additional level of anxiety.'
Another patient told the Telegraph: 'I worry my time is running out. I may not get many other chances to do this.' After trying to conceive for two years, she was awaiting IUI treatment when her clinic cancelled all procedures due to the coronavirus – a situation in which many patients may now find themselves.
She added: 'I had some hope we might finally have a chance. It felt like we were on the road to something. Now, everything hangs in the balance.'
Some say the measures discriminate against those who need fertility treatment to get pregnant. Speaking to the Huffington Post, one patient said: 'Everyone keeps joking that there's going to be a baby boom in nine months [from couples self-isolating together] – is there going to be a public health announcement to stop fertile couples from sleeping together?'
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) have asked that clinics follow the guidance and are providing regular updates on their website.