CBS CEO backpedals on paying Canadians for their plasma

The Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Blood Services is doing some damage control by backtracking on the agency’s position on plasma collection.

In an internal blog post last week, Dr. Graham Sher told employees at CBS that he’d like to set the record straight. Sher stirred up controversy recently with his comments on the issue of paying people for their plasma.

CBC reporter Kelly Crowe revealed Sher would not rule out a pay-for-plasma model, if CBS was not able to increase plasma collection in Canada with unpaid donors.  The fact that Sher would even consider such a scenario is unacceptable, and OPSEU has called on him to resign.

Sher’s blog post tries to convince workers he was merely responding to a hypothetical situation, with a hypothetical answer. He tells them, “it has never been our practice, and it is not our plan to pay donors.”

Notice he doesn’t say it will “never” be his plan to pay donors.

In the blog, Sher talks about CBS’s goal of becoming less reliant on plasma-derived pharmaceutical products from the U.S.  These are drugs that are used to treat conditions like immune disorders and Alzheimer’s. He says Canada currently collects 200,000 litres of plasma per year, and that we will need to collect at least double that amount in order to achieve some level of self-sufficiency.

Right now, there is no concrete plan on how CBS will do that.  But Sher says “it may mean building a stand-alone plasma system with a dedicated and specialized staff, recruiting plasma donors in densely populated locations where it makes the most sense to do so, and investing in new infrastructure to support plasma collections.”

That sounds like the kind of system that would be easy enough to convert to a pay-for-plasma model, if at some point CBS says it’s not getting enough voluntary donations to meet its plasma targets.

And how is it that we are all of a sudden in such dire straits, when just four years ago we were overflowing in plasma?  In fact, an abundance of plasma was the justification used for shutting down a Thunder Bay collection centre that produced 10,000 litres a year. The closure of that clinic put 25 people out of work.

This is what the Chief Operating Officer at the time, Ian Mumford, had to say:

“Over the past few years, there has been a consistent downward trend in the demand for plasma and based on our current projections we will need to collect approximately 10,000 fewer units next year.”

Was CBS simply the victim of flawed projections and lack of foresight?  Or is something else going on?

Currently in Canada, there is no licensed processor to convert plasma into various drug therapies.  Our plasma is exported to the United States where it undergoes what is called “fractionation.”  It is then imported back into the country in the form of pharmaceuticals to meet the needs of Canadian patients.

But that could soon change.

Sher says two private companies are about to enter the fractionation business.  Ian Mumford, who left his job as the second-in-command at CBS seven months ago, is now a director of one of them.

In the 1980s and 1990s more than 30,000 Canadians were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C through tainted blood and blood products.  At the time, the Red Cross had been operating Canada’s blood program.  An inquiry was launched to examine what became known as our country’s worst ever public health disaster.  The inquiry was led by Justice Horace Krever and set out 50 recommendations to keep Canada’s blood supply and blood products safe.   The recommendations included:  that blood is a public resource, donors should not be paid, and no part of the national blood operator’s duties should be contracted out.

If Canada wants to be truly self-sufficient in plasma products, CBS should be trying to find a way to process the plasma it collects in-house.  That way, we could have real confidence that the head of the agency is serving the public, and not profit-driven businesses.  We would know that the plasma we are collecting is coming from healthy unpaid donors, that it is processed under the highest standards, and that the pharmaceuticals produced will be used to treat Canadians.

Dr. Sher needs to be reminded of the real reason he has a job.  Canadian Blood Services was established as a result of the Krever inquiry.  Sher should be following Krever’s recommendations to the letter, not making a mockery of them.

Click here to see Sher’s full internal blog.

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