It’s been 20 years since the tainted blood scandal’s Krever inquiry condemned paid plasma collection, but a new company has spent the past year working towards a money-for-blood model. The effort has not gone unnoticed.
Inside Canadian Plasma Resources’ clinic last week, a skeleton crew busied themselves shuffling charts and looking at their computer screens in the slick new facility at Church and Adelaide. A sign atop the reception desk read: “Give plasma, give life.” But that’s precisely what hasn’t been happening in the clinic. When asked what they do all day, CEO Barzin Bahardoust ran a hand across a shiny turntable-shaped plasma collection machine and shrugged, “Just training and training. Over and over,” he said. “We are hoping to get started soon.”
Since applying for an establishment license from Health Canada a year ago, the controversial paid-donor clinic has been stalled by government process and oppositional backlash. The plan was for CPR to pay eligible Torontonians $20 for their plasma, which people could donate multiple times each month. The clinic would freeze it and ship it to an external facility for rigorous testing (they are not currently set up as a lab facility). After a quarantine period, the plasma would then be fractionated—its separate components processed into pharmaceutical products, a process Bahardoust likened to oil refining.
With the Canadian tainted blood scandal still fresh in people’s memory, especially the thousands who unknowingly received infected blood and blood products, CPR’s mere existence is seen as an affront. The 1993 Krever inquiry led to charges of criminal negligence against the Canadian Red Cross, senior Health Canada bureaucrats, and Armour Pharmaceutical because of their failure to adequately test and process blood concentrates (though all were acquitted). It was also discovered that the Red Cross had been purchasing plasma that had been extracted from high-risk prison inmates in Arkansas, which inadvertently infected the Canadian blood supply with HIV and Hepatitis C. The 1997 Krever report concluded that donors within the Canadian blood supply system should not be paid except in rare circumstances.
For Michael McCarthy, the new plasma collection clinic is a NIMBY situation of the highest order. McCarthy, a nurse by profession and a haemophiliac by birth, lost two uncles to bad blood, and was himself infected through blood obtained by the Canadian Red Cross (which was later found to be sourced from Arkansas prison inmates). “I was really shocked at how developed the proposal to open these centres was, considering the kind of grief and tragedy that played out across everybody’s TVs in the past 15 years,” he said. McCarthy—whose advocacy work resulted in a $2.4-billion settlement for victims of the tainted blood scandal—is incensed by these clinics (two in Toronto, and one under construction in Hamilton), which would mirror the U.S. practice of paying donors for source plasma. He’s especially concerned by what he perceives to be the lack of public consultation over whether a compensated donor-source plasma system should even be considered in Ontario.
CPR had anticipated a wait of roughly 12 months to receive licensing. (Health Canada says this involves “multiple stages of review and inspection” and that the process is “ongoing.”) In the meantime, management has attempted to pay rent and staff with private investors optimistic about the potentially lucrative dividends from selling plasma. “Canada is one of the largest per capita users of plasma protein products,” said Bahardoust. He questioned why a Canadian company can’t get a piece of the pie, especially considering Canada already purchases plasma products from paid donor clinics in the U.S.
Opponents have raised concerns about new undiscovered viruses slipping through undetected, as well as the possibility of a volunteer donor base being chipped away by a paid system. There are even fears that, if approved, this will pave the way for the commercial sale of body parts. What’s more, critics worry that paid donation would target vulnerable (and high-risk) populations looking for fast cash. (CPR’s Spadina location is next to a homeless shelter, though Bahardoust said that people without fixed addresses would be ineligible as donors.)
McCarthy contends that, “It’s a commercial activity, it’s about the money.” Meanwhile, CPR has already invested a great deal of time and money in the hope that their licence will be approved in the new year. For the company, harvesting an inexhaustible resource that can glean a tidy profit is a no-brainer. For McCarthy, and others who were victims of negligence and greed, such a transaction will never be that simple.
Tainted blood timeline
1940s–1990s: Canadian Red Cross Society is responsible for the country’s blood supply.
1980s–90s: Thousands of Canadians are infected with either HIV or Hep C through tainted plasma sourced through the Arkansas prison system.
October 1993: Krever Inquiry begins.
November 1997: Krever report recommends setting up Héma-Québec and Canadian Blood Services to operate at arms’ length from the feds.
2005: Canadian Red Cross pleads guilty to violating the Food and Drug Regulation Act.
2006: Federal government approves a $1 billion compensation package for victims of tainted blood.
2013: Tainted, a play based on the blood scandal, debuts in Toronto.