Money for Blood is Good for All

The Economist: For years [Barzin Bahardoust] has been trying to pay Canadians for their blood plasma—the viscous straw-coloured liquid in blood that has remarkable therapeutic powers. When his firm, Canadian Plasma Resources (CPR), tried to open clinics in Ontario in 2014, a campaign by local activists led to a ban by the provincial government on paid plasma collection. Undeterred, he tried another province, Alberta—which also banned the practice last year. Then, on April 26th, when CPR announced a planned centre in British Columbia, its government said it too was considering similar legislation. CPR has managed to open two centres, in far-flung Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Even these have faced opposition.

The global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone. Global plasma exports were worth $126bn in 2016—more than exports of aeroplanes.

…Only countries that pay for plasma are self-sufficient in it. (Italy, where donors are given time off work, is close to self-sufficiency.) Half of America’s plasma is shipped to Europe—20m contributions-worth. Canada imports 80% of its plasma products from America. Australia imports 40% of its plasma products, too.

It’s a very odd “ethical policy” that leads Canadian provinces to ban paying Canadians for plasma but then import paid plasma from the United States. I am one of the signatories (along with Al Roth, Vernon Smith and Gerald Dworkin among others) of a letter that argues for the efficiency and ethics of allowing compensation for blood plasma donation. The Economist riffs of this letter in a very good op-ed:

The aversion to paid plasma rests on three reasonable-sounding but largely groundless propositions. The first is that it is unsafe. Payment might encourage donors to conceal dangerous behaviour—such as intravenous drug use. In the 1980s and 1990s, tainted blood products infected half the world’s haemophiliacs with HIV, along with tens of thousands of plasma donors in China. But modern plasma products do not carry such risks. They are heat-treated and bathed in chemicals to sanitise them (an impossibility for blood for transfusion). Since the adoption of these techniques there has not been a single case of transmission of HIV or hepatitis via plasma products. Doctors agree that plasma products from paid donors are just as safe as those from unpaid ones.

A second argument is that, if people are paid for their plasma, fewer will volunteer to donate whole blood for transfusions. (Paying for whole blood would be unwise, since it cannot be sterilised as plasma can.) But there is no evidence that paying for plasma diminishes the supply of donated blood. That is why, in Canada, more than 30 economists and philosophers wrote an open letter arguing against bans on paid plasma. Americans voluntarily donate as much blood per person as do Canadians.

A third argument is that paying for plasma preys on the poor. It is possible that those selling plasma need the money and therefore might give too often. In America plasma donors can give twice a week; those in Europe can give just once a week. There is no evidence of harm to their health in either case, but more long-term study would be prudent.

Those against allowing payment suggest using voluntary donors instead. Yet every country that does not pay ends up importing plasma. And the fact that America is by far the dominant supplier carries risks of its own. The dependence on a single source leaves the rest of the world vulnerable to an interruption of supply. To protect their people, therefore, other governments need to diversify their supplies of plasma. Paying for it would make a big difference.


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