The conversation about pay-for-plasma clinics is intensifying in Canada, and here in Alberta.
Right now, Canadians donate their blood and plasma voluntarily through Canadian Blood Services – they do not receive money for it.
READ MORE: Pay for plasma: the ethical debate
Canadian Blood Services is a not-for-profit government-funded agency that oversees the country’s blood supply. But a private pay-for-plasma company, Canadian Plasma Resources, is setting up shop in this country.
Health Canada licenses, authorizes and inspects any establishment that collects plasma to make blood products.
“Plasma products distributed in Canada must be approved and licensed by Health Canada and made according to strict safety standards regardless of where the plasma comes from and whether or not the donors were paid,” read a statement from Health Canada.
A Canadian Plasma Resources facility recently opened in Saskatoon and compensates donors with a $25 credit card. The practice has been banned in Ontario and Quebec. The company had previously expressed interest in moving west to Alberta.
Plasma is the liquid component of blood. It is donated in a similar fashion to blood but the process takes a little longer.
However, Canada is not self-sufficient in its plasma supply. Canadian Blood Services CEO Dr. Graham Sher said Canadians only donate about 25 per cent, or roughly 200,000 litres, of what the country needs and demand is on the rise.
“We’re looking at a variety of options to expand plasma collection across this country to collect considerably more plasma under the auspices of Canadian Blood Services than we do today,” Sher said.
“Our desire would be to do this without remunerating donors, without paying donors. But we need to recognize, we’re talking about very, very significant increases in the amount of plasma that we collect so we need to look at what is going to make this the most viable option.”
Canada thereby turns to the international supply of plasma, the majority of which is donated by paid donors in United States. That plasma is then manufactured into critical drugs for life-threatening conditions, such as rare cancers and rare blood disorders.
Health Canada conducted a roundtable on the issue of paid plasma donors three years ago. It found, “No country in the world has been able to meet their need for plasma with a solely volunteer model.”
“The plasma industry has deemed the remuneration of donors as an effective tool to recruit and retain donors,” Sher said.
However, that isn’t sitting well for some Canadians who still remember the tainted blood scandal in the 1980s and are concerned about safety.
The scandal saw patients receiving blood contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C. The Krever inquiry, which was conducted in the scandal’s aftermath, even recommended Canada stay away from a paid donor model.
The World Health Organization also wants 100 per cent voluntary donations for blood and blood products, such as plasma, worldwide.
Canadian Plasma Resources defends its business model, however.
“Nobody opposes compensation of the import of compensated plasma products from the United States and this has been happening for over 30 years now,” said Barzin Bahardoust, CEO for Canadian Plasma Resources.
“Now that it’s being done in Canada, there are questions raised about safety. If there is criticism that that process happening in Canada is unsafe, we think it’s not justified.”
The federal health minister is also weighing in on the issue of safety.
READ MORE: Pay for plasma: the ethical debate
“Plasma processing technology has evolved significantly from the days of the Krever Commission. In addition to strict donor screening and testing requirements, heat treatment and other processes remove or inactivate viruses and other contaminants,” read a statement by Jane Philpott.
“There has not been a single recorded case of disease transmission through plasma products in Canada in the past 25 years.”
However, compensation of donors isn’t a federal issue – that falls to the provincial and territorial governments, and Alberta’s health minister isn’t on board.
“I think it undermines the voluntary system. I think we’ve worked very hard to establish the Canadian Blood Services,” said Sarah Hoffman.
“I say let’s look at the barriers to having people donate through the voluntary system and find ways to strengthen the Canadian voluntary system.”
Sher said Canadian Blood Services will be working with the provincial and territorial governments over the next few months on a plan to increase plasma donations and whether that involves changing its current operating model of not remunerating donors.
“If there’s a potential need to significantly increase the amount of plasma that is collected on a regular, frequent basis, we need to look at options but we have not made any determination in that regard yet,” he said.
Tune in to Edmonton’s Global News Hour at 6 on Sunday, May 1 for the first video report in this series.