The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the embryo industry: the practitioners’ perspective

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Published on: March 30, 2022

Joao HM Viana1, Daniela Demetrio2

1 Embrapa Recursos Genéticos e Biotecnologia, Brasília, 70770-901 Brazil

2 RuAnn Genetics, Riverdale, CA, United States

Introduction

The numbers presented this year in the Report of the Data Retrieval Committee (DRC) of the International Embryo Technology Society showed that, despite the Pandemic, 2020 was a good year for the embryo transfer industry worldwide. The total number of embryos recorded increased in most countries and for all of the most representative species (cattle, horse, sheep and goats). In cattle, overall embryo production (in vivo and in vitro) increased 7.0% when compared with 2019, with more than 1.5 million embryos recorded [1]. To better understand the apparent contradiction between the positive trends in the embryo transfer industry and the economic and social crises caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic, a survey of practitioners from Brazil, Canada and the United States was conducted. These countries account for 74.6% of all the embryos recorded in cattle. However, their embryo industries are characterized by important differences, which limit extrapolations. Therefore, the current survey aimed to highlight how, in the perception of practitioners, the COVID-19 Pandemic affected the embryo transfer industry in each of their countries, as well as to reveal their expectations for 2021.

Methodology

The survey was conducted using the Google Form tools. The invitation to participate in the survey was sent using the mailing list of the national embryo transfer associations: SBTE (Brazil), CETA (Canada) and AETA (USA). All participants were required to provide their type of business to start the survey (in vivo embryo collection, ovum pick-up, in vitro embryo production [IVEP], transfer of embryos, or other). To keep the survey simple and straightforward, and to encourage feedback from the participants, only four multiple-choice questions were asked:

  1. How would you score the negative impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on your business in 2020?;
  2. If the Pandemic affected your business, what was the main cause?;
  3. If the Pandemic did not affect your business, or you were able to partially overcome its negative impacts, what was the main cause?; and
  4. In regard to the economic or social consequences of the Pandemic, what are the expectations for your business in 2021?

Only one answer was accepted for questions one and four, while multiple answers were accepted for questions two and three.

Results and discussion

Feedback from 25, 13, and 76 practitioners from Brazil, Canada, and the USA, respectively was received. As expected, the majority of answers from Brazil were from practitioners working with IVEP (68.0%) and/or ovum pick-up (36.0%), whereas only 16.0% reported in vivo embryo collections. Conversely, in the USA a greater proportion of answers were from practitioners performing in vivo embryo collections (73.4%), compared with IVEP (22.8%). In the latter, however, the percentage of practitioners reporting activities in transfer of embryos (83.5%, respectively) indicates that many participants were involved with both technologies. In Canada, no answer (0%) came from practitioners working directly with IVEP, although 15.4% did ovum pick-up. These differences reflect the characteristics of the embryo transfer industries among

countries. In Brazil, in vitro technologies have been used widely for over a decade; in Canada most embryos are still collected in vivo and the USA has seen an exponential growth in IVEP over the last 5 years [2].

For most of respondents from Brazil and Canada (44.0% and 46.2%, respectively), the Pandemic had a minor impact on their activities (Fig. 1), whereas “no significant impact” was the most common answer in the USA (41.8%). Taken together, in these three countries, the proportion of practitioners that considered the impact of the Pandemic relevant (moderate to severe impact), was lower than those that considered it not relevant (no or minor impact) (29.9% vs. 70.1%, respectively). The general perception of a low impact of the Pandemic on the embryo transfer industry is consistent with the trends observed in embryo numbers worldwide. The total number of bovine embryos recorded in 2020 increased in Brazil (+21.3%) and in the USA (+5.0%), and declined slightly in Canada (-2.1%). On a world-wide basis, this trend of growth in embryo transfer activity over the past year was observed in 5 out of the other 7 countries ranked within the top 10 (France, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and the Netherlands).

A contrasting scenario among countries was observed regarding the perception of why the Pandemic may have negatively affected embryo transfer businesses (Fig. 2). In Brazil, and to a lesser extent in the USA, “problems with logistics or supply chains” were the most common answers (80.0% and 47.1%, respectively), contrasting with only 20.0% in Canada. A possible reason for such inconsistency is the difference in the proportion of embryos produced in vitro in each country (94.8% in Brazil, vs. 78.1% in the USA and 35.5% in Canada). IVEP requires a much more complex network of suppliers of equipment, disposables, reagents, media, and gases, when compared with in vivo embryo production. Frequently, this supply chain requires interstate or international shipping of products, and is thus more likely to have been disturbed during the Pandemic. Other differences, however, were expected. The restriction measures adopted by governments were highly variable from country to country, as well as among cities or regions within each country. “Mandatory shut-downs”, for example, was the most common answer in Canada (60.0%), but less common in the USA (13.7%).

In both Brazil and the USA, a high demand for embryo transfer services was seen as the main factor to counterbalance the negative impact of the Pandemic (66.7% and 74.6% of answers, respectively, Fig. 3). In fact, these countries are important players in the international meat market (1st and 3rd in beef exports in 2020, respectively). During the Pandemic, beef meat prices increased substantially, influenced mainly by the demand from Asia. China’s beef imports, for example, increased 27.8% in 2020, when compared with 2019 [3]. The heated international meat market also affected domestic markets, increasing the demand for replacement calves [4] and thus for the use of assisted reproductive technologies in cattle. The international trade of embryos in cattle is another example of the heated animal protein market. The USA exported 29,262 embryos to 49 countries in 2020, a 19% increase from 2019 [2] confirming that COVID-19 did not decrease the demand for bovine genetics.

In general, an optimistic expectation for the embryo transfer industry in 2021 was obtained, with more neutral or positive than negative answers (88.8% vs. 11.2%, Fig. 4). This confident attitude towards the near future was particularly high in Brazil, where 80.0% of practitioners had positive or very positive expectations for 2021, and no negative answers were recorded. In fact, Brazil benefited from both the international conjuncture of the beef market and fluctuations in currency exchange, and increased beef exports by 9.7% from 2019 to 2020, whereas direct competitors such as the USA and Australia had decreased beef exports [3]. In contrast, answers from the USA, although generally positive, were more scattered, with 7.7% of the answers as very positive but 1.3% as very negative. This may reflect a greater diversity within the embryo transfer industry in the USA, as compared to Brazil.

The Canadian practitioners, on the other hand, tended to be more neutral, with 61.5% expecting no major changes on their businesses, and with no answers on the extremes. In Canada, the embryo transfer industry seems to have been less influenced by the international trends in the animal protein market, as the answers regarding what may have prevented a greater negative impact of the Pandemic (Fig. 3) were distributed more evenly. The demand for embryo transfer services, for example, ranked similar (with 45.5% of answers) to other alternatives.

Interpretation of the results requires some caution, as the survey was structured using few, simple questions with pre-defined possible answers – a strategy to stimulate greater participation by practitioners. Nevertheless, regional differences on how the Pandemic affected embryo transfer activities were demonstrated, as well as parallels between the demand for services, the expectations for the activity in the near future, and possible external factors influencing the embryo market. Altogether, the results of this survey provide important pieces of information to understand the scenario of the embryo transfer industry during the Pandemic, complementing data from the Data Retrieval Committee’s report and bringing the perspective of those directly enrolled in the activity.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank SBTE, CETA and AETA for conducting the survey and all the practitioners that voluntarily answered the questions. We also thank Dr. Reuben J. Mapletoft for his contribution to the survey and for reviewing this text.

References

  1. Viana, JHM. 2020 Statistics of embryo production and transfer in domestic farm animals: World embryo industry grows despite the Pandemic. Embryo Technology Newsletter, v. 39, n.4, 2021
  2. Demetrio, DGB & Looney, CR. USA 2021 Statistical Information Committee Report (2020 Data). https://www.aeta.org/docs/2020_Stats.pdf?v=2
  3. https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/livestock_poultry.pdf
  4. https://www.cepea.esalq.usp.br/en/brazilian-agribusiness-news/average-prices-for-calf-and-lean-and-fed- cattle-hit-new-records-in-brazil.aspx
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