Patients of a prestigious Australian fertility clinic have been artificially inseminated with ineffective sperm costing thousands of dollars from an overseas supplier.
A number of women have undergone intrauterine insemination (IUI) with the 'world-leading fertility' service using suboptimal sperm that offered no real chance of conception.
Several more patients had purchased sperm from the overseas sperm bank Donor Gametes South Africa (DGSA), the Herald understands, and at least one patient was inseminated twice at Genea.
DGSA flagged "quality control issues" when contacted by the Herald. Four women have been affected, according to Genea.
Genea had facilitated multiple shipments of DGSA sperm for fertility treatments, including IUI patients: a less invasive technique than IVF that involves inserting sperm via the cervix into a woman's uterus.
Amy Jones paid $5000 for five vials of "IUI-ready" DGSA sperm and $2500 to Genea to undergo the procedure on May 14 in the Sydney CBD clinic in the hope of conceiving before her 40th birthday.
It was only after her negative pregnancy test at the end of May that she was informed by Genea the sperm was not IUI quality.
"They told me that I could never have fallen pregnant with this sperm and this procedure," Ms Jones said.
A subsequent email from Genea described the sperm purchased as "not fit for purpose", meaning the number of moving sperm was lower than recommended for IUI.
DGSA sperm has since been downgraded and deemed only suitable for intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), an invasive and expensive IVF technique involving injecting a single sperm into each egg.
"I was utterly shocked," Ms Jones said. "It's not just the money. It's the five months it took to get to the IUI procedure, the wait-list to access the donor website, waiting for the sperm to arrive, and two weeks of thinking 'oh God, I could be pregnant' when it was literally impossible."
Ms Jones spent two months and almost daily phone calls and emails trying to secure a refund from DGSA.
Genea immediately agreed to refund the full amount, which was credited towards her more expensive and invasive IVF treatment.
Genea maintained DGSA was responsible for reimbursing patients and requested partial refunds on their behalf.
"Any fertility treatment is stressful enough. Instead of being able to solely focus on the process, I've had to deal with this additional disappointment and stress that ironically can affect fertility," Ms Jones said.
Hours after the Herald contacted Genea and DGSA, Ms Jones said she was contacted by DGSA and sent paperwork to secure a settlement, of which the terms are confidential.
A spokesperson for Genea said the organisation recognised the problem quickly and notified patients accordingly.
"Genea was very disappointed to discover that the quality of the sperm samples was not as advertised," the spokesperson said in a statement.
The relationship between the organisations had been suspended, the statement read.
Genea entered a Service Level Agreement with DGSA in August 2018 giving patients access to DGSA's sperm bank, which does comply with Australian legislation.
But the commercial arrangement was between the patient and the bank, the spokesperson said.
Despite Genea facilitating access to the DGSA sperm bank, patients are required to sign a disclaimer acknowledging "Genea does not vouch for nor provide a guarantee or promise as to the quality or effectiveness of sperm ordered from DGSA."
According to the disclaimer: "Genea has no control over the quality of the sperm, not the initial freezing processes performed by DGSA".
Australia has a shortage of donor sperm. The small pool of donors, and a lack of international sperm banks that comply with Australian and state laws, leave few options for patients, Genea's spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said their organisation has acted as an advocate for patients demanding DGSA refund them, has refunded Genea treatment costs and offered a number of options for future treatments.
DGSA embryologists and laboratory specialist Dr Kimenthra Raja confirmed DGSA sperm had been downgraded to ICSI quality until "all quality control issues are sorted" and could not provide information about donations due to confidentiality restraints.
In a statement, Dr Raja said DGSA was in the process of providing refunds and apologising to patients.
"It was never our intention to add to their stress," she said. "Our intention was only to provide a service to help these patients.
"We find ourselves affected by not being able to assist these patients in the way we had hoped," Dr Raja said, also apologising for "communication errors".