A woman dressed in black and wearing a grey raincoat holds a microphone and stands next to a white-bearded man holding a picket sign that says "Ban Blood Money."
Nova Scotia Health Coalition provincial coordinator Alexandra Rose and coalition chairperson Bob Barkwell outside the planned location for the Canadian Plasma Resources clinic in Halifax on Sept. 19, 2023. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

Representatives from several organizations concerned about a for-profit blood plasma clinic opening in Halifax held a rally Tuesday to protest and demand the province put a stop to it.

Members of the Nova Scotia Health Coalition (NSHC), NSGEU, CUPE, and a handful of concerned citizens gathered to express their concerns in front of the future location of a Canadian Plasma Resources (CPR) clinic in Bayers Lake.

According to the CPR website, a qualified donor can donate plasma no more than twice in each seven-day period, and can receive “up to” $70 per donation. 

“We’re here because paid plasma is coming to Nova Scotia. We’re here because we think that that is not just a bad idea, but a wicked idea,” NSHC chairperson and former physician Bob Barkwell told the gathered group of 12 people.

Their hideous pay schedule where they blithely inform you that the more [plasma] you give, the more [money] you’ll get. Then suggesting, ‘Oh, twice a week to give plasma would be a great idea.’ It’s a very sad situation.”

In an interview, Barkwell said “time is running out” to put a stop to for-profit plasma collection. He said he doesn’t understand why Nova Scotia doesn’t ban the practice like some provinces have. 

“It’s clear to me, on the other hand, that the federal government is also not stepping in because fundamentally they don’t disagree with privatization,” Barkwell added.

‘Exploitative practice’

The NSHC describes paid plasma collection as an “exploitative practice” that targets vulnerable populations, increases the risk to blood safety, and weakens the voluntary blood donation system. 

“The NS Provincial Government has failed to pass legislation to take a stand against private, for-profit plasma collection effectively undermining the goals of a self-sufficient blood and blood product supply and disregarding recommendations made by the Krever Inquiry following Canada’s tainted blood scandal,” NSHC wrote in material promoting Tuesday’s rally. 

Calling on Premier Tim Houston to “shut this place down,” CUPE Nova Scotia vice president and NSHC board member Dianne Frittenburg said they want the provincial government to pass legislation banning paid plasma donations like the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec have already done. 

Frittenburg said Nova Scotia needs to support a public system of blood product collection by increasing its contribution to Canadian Blood Services. She said this would enable the agency to activate unused plasma collection capacity currently in place but “sitting idle.”

“It (for-profit plasma collection) weakens voluntary blood donor programs, which jeopardizes our national blood supply. By undermining the principles of voluntary donation, some longtime donors lose motivation and stop giving, while others opt for paid plasma clinics instead,” Frittenburg said.

“We must do this [ban] both to protect our blood system and the vulnerable Nova Scotians who will be motivated to sell their blood for one reason and one reason only. They are poor.”

‘Payment can be a coercive force’

In an email Tuesday, Department of Health and Wellness spokesperson Khalehla Perrault noted that Canadian Blood Services is responsible for securing blood and blood products for provinces and territories. 

“The collection or importation of blood and blood products by CBS is regulated by Health Canada. Canadian Blood Services or Health Canada can best address questions about collection, regulation, and safety,” Perreault wrote.

“At this time there are no restrictions in Nova Scotia on the operation of paid blood collection that meet safety standards.”

Internationally renowned bioethicist and Dalhousie University professor Françoise Baylis said in an email that she remains opposed to the sale of blood and plasma. 

Four years ago, Baylis created a short, easy-to-understand video outlining concerns about blood products in the marketplace. 

“Will donors give freely if a nearby collection centre is offering payment? And what about autonomy when payment is offered,” Baylis asked in the video.

“We know that payment can be a coercive force, compromising autonomous decision making and taking advantage of vulnerable people in need of ready cash.”

The NSHC’s provincial coordinator Alexandra Rose was the last to address Tuesday’s gathering. She urged the province to ban paid plasma clinics and to stop the Halifax CPR clinic from opening. 

“The Nova Scotia government just announced that we are in surplus,” Rose said. “So at a time where we supposedly have all this money, there should be nobody that feels they have to sell their plasma, to sell any part of their body, in order to put food on the table, or keep a roof over their heads.” 

Competing with foreign companies

In a lengthy media brief/q&a about paid plasma found on the CPR website, the company said it collects plasma required to manufacture pharmaceutical products, noting that it doesn’t collect plasma or blood for direct transfusion into patients. 

“That is a publicly funded voluntary system and will remain so,” CPR wrote. 

The pharmaceutical company said it intends to compete with the foreign companies currently supplying Canada’s health care system with medication many vulnerable patients require to survive.

“Today, 100 percent of these drugs, known as plasma protein products (PPPs) come from foreign, for profit pharmaceutical companies who compensate their plasma donors,” the company’s website states. 

“A very small amount of the plasma used in manufacturing these drugs comes from volunteer donors in Canada (17%) which is then shipped to these foreign companies for processing.”

Entering into a ‘pure profit system’

In 2022, Canadian Blood Services entered into a 15-year agreement with Spanish pharmaceutical firm Grifols to “accelerate self-sufficiency in immunoglobulins in Canada.” 

Grifols runs this whole international collection system. So there’s nothing Canadian about this system. It’s just being integrated into a system where they’re drawing blood from Egypt, the U.S., everywhere where they have blood collection clinics,” CUPE researcher Govind Rao said in an interview. 

“[They’re] shipping it all over, and then shipping it back. We’re basically entering into this system that is a pure profit system.”

In June of this year, Grifols announced it had signed an agreement with CPR, giving it the right to obtain plasma donated at CPR’s centres. The company further noted in a media release its intention to acquire CPR centres by the end of 2025. 

Self-described as a “global leader in plasma medicines with more than 110 years contributing to improve the health and well-being of people,” Grifols Group said it also planned to open more plasma donation centres in Canada. Those would be separate from its agreement with Canadian Plasma Resources.

Almost 20,000 people have signed a petition calling on Canadian Blood Services (CBS) to keep blood collection services public. “Don’t sell off plasma collection to big pharma,” it notes.

No opening date announced for Halifax clinic

According to its website, Canadian Plasma Resources currently has eight plasma collection centres across the country, including three in New Brunswick [Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John)] A ninth slated for Red Deer, Alberta is listed on its website as “opening soon.” 

While the sign for the Nova Scotia location is on display outside a building on Hobsons Lake Drive, Halifax doesn’t yet appear on the CPR website. 

In response to an emailed media request asking about a potential opening date, Canadian Plasma Resources sent a generic reply. In it, the company offered thanks for expressing an interest in donating plasma. The message noted “We will keep you posted regarding the opening date for the Halifax location.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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