B.C. unclear over how Canadian Blood Services private plasma deal will affect donations

·4 min read
Blood plasma is the straw-coloured liquid component left when blood cells are removed from whole blood.  It contains nutrients and immune molecules like antibodies. (Hiep Vu via Canadian Blood Services - image credit)
Blood plasma is the straw-coloured liquid component left when blood cells are removed from whole blood. It contains nutrients and immune molecules like antibodies. (Hiep Vu via Canadian Blood Services - image credit)

The B.C. government has not said how a deal struck between Canadian Blood Services and an international for-profit plasma provider will affect donations in the province, where being paid to donate blood or plasma is prohibited.

"The province looks forward to further discussions about additional actions to increase plasma sufficiency," said a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health on Tuesday.

In 2018 B.C. passed the Voluntary Blood Donations Act, which prohibits organizations from paying donors.

It said the goal of the act was to "protect the public blood system from encroachment by the private sector; ensure that plasma collected from British Columbians was used to treat patients in Canada; and, to prevent private entities from exploiting an essential resource and the individuals who generously donate blood."

It's unclear how the act will intersect with a deal struck by Canadian Blood Services (CBS), announced two weeks ago, to partner with a private health-care company to boost Canada's national blood plasma supply and production of plasma products made in Canada, for Canadians.

The 15-year agreement will see Grifols, a company headquartered in Spain, which specializes in producing plasma medicines, open a number of plasma collecting sites in Canada to help Canadian Blood Services up its plasma donations in the country from about 15 per cent of what it needs to 50 per cent.

The deal also will have Grifols make immunoglobulin (lg) and other plasma medicines.

Plasma is a protein-rich liquid in blood that helps blood components circulate throughout the body and is used by people with immune deficiencies and rare blood disorders, kidney and liver diseases, various cancer patients and others, according to CBS.

Officials with CBS said it has protections and safeguards for the national blood system to ensure plasma collected in Canada stays in Canada to serve Canadian patients.

Grifols has a business model which pays for plasma donations.

'Grave concerns'

Critics of the deal say it will endanger Canada's blood supply by encroaching on the existing voluntary system.

"We have really grave concerns about this deal because it negatively impacts and harms our voluntary blood and plasma collection system," said Usman Mushtaq with the B.C. Health Coalition.

Hiep Vu
Hiep Vu

It's one of several provincial and territorial health coalitions that sent an open letter to CBS calling for the resignation of the leadership of the agency. The coalitions worry donors will eschew the voluntary donor system to be paid by Grifols.

"Instead of blood being a universal and free public resource, this deal opens up the doors to private, for-profit corporations moving into the blood collection system," reads the letter.

Provincial and territorial governments currently decide how plasma is collected in their areas. Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia are the only provinces that do not allow for paid plasma donations, Health Canada has said.

B.C.'s Ministry of Health did not elaborate further on how the deal would be treated in the province. Grifols has so far acquired a donation centre in Winnipeg, with more to come, and has a manufacturing centre in Montreal to make plasma products.

'Undemocratic'

Mushtaq said CBS has trampled laws that exist in provinces like B.C. to protect from for-profit blood and plasma donation systems.

"This is really concerning because Canadian Blood Services has overridden that existing legislation both here in B.C. and Ontario," he said. "So for the CBS to make a unilateral decision, override what's in legislation and make this deal is undemocratic."

Some organizations, such as Canadian Immunodeficiencies Patient Organization, Canadian Hemophilia Society and the Network of Rare Blood Disorder Organizations have given their support to the deal, saying it helps address an urgent and growing need for plasma products.

Meanwhile, health coalitions and others against the deal want CBS to make a greater effort to enhance the voluntary system in order to increase the amount of plasma donated in Canada.

CBS has opened five new dedicated plasma donor centres of its own, with six more to follow by 2024.

It said the centres and other efforts will improve Canada's plasma efficiency to 25 per cent, while Grifols is expected to make up the other 25 per cent.