Making babies is a business as well as a way of life for father-of-eight Kostas Pantos.
As founder of Genesis, Greece’s biggest fertility clinic, he oversees 5,000 cycles of treatment every year, or about a third of the total in the country, and five times what he did just a few years ago. Away from the wrangling over Greek finances, the medic and his team want to make Greece a hub for assisted reproductive technology, or ART, a worldwide market predicted to exceed $20 billion by 2020.
“There might be a financial crisis, but people will still pay to get a child when they want one,” said Pantos, 58, as he monitors a procedure he can see on a live television feed in his office. “We’re booming.”
Endorsed by a government running out of money, the plan now is to bundle treatment with a vacation, much as rival Spain has done, combining two rare growth industries in a country struggling to emerge from the worst downturn in its history. The economic crisis, and loose regulation coming with government spending cuts, may even have helped the fertility industry.
Should treatment fail using a woman’s eggs, Greek law allows donors to remain anonymous and get paid as much as 1,000 euros ($1,114). So just as the birthrate in Greece has traced the decline in the economy, the supply of eggs has risen.
There’s also a wider market than in some other countries because procedures are available to women as old as 50, while it costs a fraction of what it does in places like the U.S.
“The country is at a critical juncture,” Health Minister Panagiotis Kouroublis said at a May 5 press conference to promote “fertility tourism.” “When it comes to the issue of growth, we need to exploit research and science.”
Europe leads the world in the number of ART procedures performed, according to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, or ESHRE, initiating about 55 percent of all treatments, called “cycles.”
Using donated eggs will become more important as age-related infertility rises, according to ESHRE. Nearly half of all donor egg treatment cycles in Europe at the moment are performed in Spain, according to some studies.
A January 2014 study by Allied Market Research put the global in vitro fertilization, or IVF, market at $9.3 billion in 2012, growing to $21.6 billion by 2020.
There’s little data on Greece and the country is still trying to figure out how many fertility centers have sprouted since the legislation on the industry was introduced in 2005.
As head of the National Authority for Medically Assisted Reproduction since late 2013, Professor Aris Antsaklis said there could be 67, 62 or 49. He first had to find somewhere to house the independent agency, funding, and staff.
“We have a very good law and anyone in Europe, anywhere can take advantage of it, provided that person knows that the banks are monitored, that they operate in line with the law and that nothing untoward is happening,” Antsaklis said.
At the Genesis clinic in the Athenian suburb of Halandri, photos of hundreds of infants, including a number of twins and a set of triplets, cover the walls of the corridors.
The phone of another doctor, Georgia Kokkali, rings constantly as she briefs three interns in her office about the latest technologies used to make babies.
The embryologist flicks quickly through the slides on her computer: time-lapse recording or “What your embryos are doing when you are not watching;” PGS, or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which can detect genetic diseases; and slow- or flash-freezing of embryos.
An aide interrupts to tell her that representatives from German drugmaker Merck KGaA have arrived. Fertility drugs, which also include those to stimulate ovulation, provided unit Merck Serono with the highest sales increase last year, according to the company’s 2014 annual report.
Pantos employs 14 embryologists like Kokkali. He says about a quarter of his patients are now from abroad and have a history of multiple failures. He wants more foreign clients, in part as Greeks delay parenthood as incomes drop and joblessness spikes. The Greek birth rate has declined 20 percent since 2008.
Genesis has quintupled its business over a similar period from 1,000 cycles a year for Greek couples only. With a cycle costing anything above 1,000 euros, sales last year totaled 5.64 million euros, up 25 percent compared with 2013. It’s still a quarter of the cost in the U.S., Pantos said.
One success is Lena, 31, who is now seven months pregnant. She and her husband, both economists, moved to Boston in 2012 to escape the Greek crisis. They returned in September, unable to start a family, and visited Genesis.
The first cycle in Boston cost her $9,500, with medicine and examinations included, and failed. The second attempt cost her $8,000. In Greece the entire cost was 4,500 euros.
“My friends in Boston thought I was crazy and insane to leave the city of science that Boston is and come to Greece,” said Lena, who asked not to use her last name.
Pantos is annoyed that the government didn’t respond and move earlier to foster the nascent industry.
“It’s haywire here, the whole system,” he said. “ I would have expected the government to have done something about it earlier. Throw some fat on the fire.”