December 09, 2009
Plasma Markets and Strange NYT Headlines: "Is Money Tainting the Plasma Supply?"
Posted by Christine Hurt

So begins an article that mainly focuses on the following facts:  (1) donating one's own plasma in return for being compensated (for one's time) is legal in the U.S.; (2) mostly people who need the money donate plasma (other people donate blood for free or don't donate any blood product); (3) companies who use plasma to create helpful and pricey medical products know this and so locate plasma collection centers near poor people, including near the U.S.-Mexico border; (4) because of the economic downturn, more people are donating plasma for compensation. 

However, nowhere in the article is there any suggestion that because companies compensate plasma donors, the plasma supply is unsafe.  There is a comparison with free blood donations:  one argument for not compensating blood donors is that we don't want them to lie about their medical history to donate -- so the blood received is theoretically cleaner than if we induced people to donate blood.  However, plasma donations are screened more carefully (which blood centers apparently don't have the manpower to do) and seem to be able to be "cleaned."  The only other connection of the facts to the headline is these two sentences, which stand alone: 

Away from the border as well, many plasma collection centers have historically been located in areas of extreme poverty, some with high drug abuse. That troubles some people, who say it might contaminate the plasma supply or the health of people who sell their plasma.

The "some people" could not be reached for comment.  Also, it's not just the poor drug users who may be tainting the blood supply.   The author, without quoting anyone or citing anything, states "One issue is whether novel pathogens that perhaps are found in Mexico but not in the United States might enter the plasma supply. "  The words "perhaps" and "might" appear here more than in a first-year law school exam.

What seems to bother the author is not the state of safety in the plasma supply, which the author spends almost no time investigating.  What bothers the author is that people can sell their plasma for money, which repels him.  Even though plasma regenerates, he hates it.  I'm sure he feels sorry for Jo March when she cuts her hair off to earn desparately needed money for her family and would have preferred that Jo and her sisters starve with their long hair intact.  However, the plasma donors seem happy that this option is available to them.  That author suggests that donating plasma may in fact be harmful to the donors, again without any type of factual support: 

Some Americans have been giving plasma this way as often as twice a week for decades, with no apparent ill effects. But there have not been many studies devised to detect long-term effects.
Another thing that seems to bother the author is that the companies that purchase the plasma make a lot of money from turning it into medical products. We are told that a $30 donation can create $300 worth of medicine. We are supposed to be shocked that donors don't share in more of the revenue, even though we have no idea what the cost is to turn ordinary plasma into life-saving medicine. But, companies that do this are becoming successful, having IPOs, and enriching venture capital funds. So, there's obviously a problem here.  The author also seems upset that because plasma-related products are so expensive, sometimes insurance companies balk at paying for them, even though they are useful.  And making it illegal to compensate plasma donors will surely help that problem.

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