British Columbia will not allow an international pharmaceutical company to collect blood plasma in the province, despite Canadian Blood Services’ attempts to get the private company past a provincial ban.
Paying for blood donations is barred in three provinces: B.C., Ontario and Quebec. The bans include paying for plasma, which is a straw-coloured fluid in blood used for transfusions and to make immunoglobulin, a therapy commonly used for people with immune disorders.
Canadian Blood Services has long said it wants to increase domestic collection of plasma, because 85 per cent of its supply comes from other countries, particularly the United States, where donors are paid. Part of its plan is to open 11 new CBS-run plasma collection centres across Canada, where donors will not be paid. The eighth such centre opened in Abbotsford, B.C., on April 11.
In September, Canadian Blood Services announced it would work with Spanish pharmaceutical company Grifols to collect even more plasma in Canada. Grifols pays its donors, which could affect how many people donate at CBS’s voluntary sites, though CBS said it would veto any Grifols locations that were too close to its own.
At the time of the announcement, CBS and Grifols said the company planned to set up in Ontario and B.C., despite the bans on paid donation, because the laws contained exemptions for CBS to pay donors in emergencies. However, it had not yet been tested whether CBS’s exemption would extend to Grifols on a continuing basis.
Behind the scenes, B.C. has expressed concerns about the contract, such as a letter B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix sent to CBS on Sept. 2 saying he did not believe the company should operate in the province.
However, B.C. has been quiet on the issue in public, until this past week.
On Wednesday, the B.C. Health Ministry wrote to advocacy group BloodWatch – which supports a voluntary blood system – to say Grifols would not operate in the province and B.C. would enforce its ban.
On Friday, a provincial spokesperson confirmed that position to The Globe and Mail.
The law “was not intended to allow a private entity to establish collection sites in B.C. with a donor remuneration model,” B.C. Health Ministry spokesperson Hope Latham said in an e-mail, adding: “We do not anticipate that Grifols would be operating sites in British Columbia.”
CBS said in an unsigned e-mail that “it is not anticipated that Grifols would need to operate in B.C. at this time.”
Grifols said it is still working with CBS to determine where its centres will be located. “We can confirm, however, that there are no plans for British Columbia at this time,” the company said in an unsigned e-mail.
The National Union of Public and General Employees, which represents the majority of CBS workers, said it supported B.C.’s decision because allowing a private company to pay donors in the province “will undermine our voluntary blood and plasma system.”
Kat Lanteigne, executive director of BloodWatch, said the contract between Grifols and CBS should be cancelled. “It is clear that the exemption in the Voluntary Blood Donations Act does not offer the loophole that CBS and Grifols are attempting to exploit,” she said of the B.C. law.
Paying for blood donations is controversial because the practice was blamed as a cause of the tainted blood scandal, in which thousands of Canadians in the 1980s caught HIV and hepatitis C from donated blood. Canadian Blood Services was set up in response to the scandal.
In the decades since, however, technology and techniques have improved and Health Canada now says it does not have safety concerns about medical products made from the plasma of paid donors. However, there are still ethical debates about whether paid donors are exploited.
It is not clear yet whether Grifols will set up in Ontario. Internal e-mails obtained under access-to-information law show Ontario’s cabinet considered lifting the ban on paid blood donation entirely, but a provincial spokesperson said in January that cabinet ultimately decided not to. The Ontario health minister’s office would only say Friday it would “monitor the outcomes” of the CBS-Grifols contract.
Almost all of CBS’s revenue comes from provincial and territorial governments. According to the agency’s 2022 annual report, it received $1.3-billion from provinces and $13-million from the federal government, along with $2.6-million in “other income,” which includes monetary donations. CBS does not quantify the value of blood donations in its financial statements.
CBS and Grifols have a long history of working together. Grifols is one of the agency’s biggest suppliers of immunoglobulin. CBS spent $782-million – more than half its budget – on plasma and plasma-derived products in 2022. Grifols also did consulting work for CBS on its plasma collection strategy in recent years.
CBS has not released financial terms for any of its contracts with Grifols.