Skip to main content

A blood donor clinic at a shopping mall in Calgary on March 27, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Canadian Blood Services says it may for the first time work with private companies that pay people in Canada for their blood plasma, as the organization looks for ways of overcoming a dearth of unpaid donations.

CBS said in a statement that it is in talks with potential commercial plasma-collection partners. The organization had long warned that allowing companies to pay for plasma could siphon donors away from the voluntary non-profit collection system.

Delphine Denis, a spokesperson for CBS, said the organization now has few options left to secure an adequate domestic supply of the protein-rich liquid, which is found in blood. Plasma is used for life-saving transfusions, and as a key ingredient in some medications.

Opinion: If we don't want shortages, we should pay blood plasma donors

Unpaid Canadian donors currently provide only about 15 per cent of the plasma CBS uses for making immunoglobin, one of the most common drugs derived from the substance. The rest it buys internationally, much of it from the United States, where payments to donors are already widespread.

CBS is in the process of opening 11 plasma collection centres across Canada – which would not pay donors – as part of a plan to get as much as 25 per cent of its supply domestically. But the organization has said its goal is to source 50 per cent of its plasma from within the country, in order to increase its self-sufficiency.

“Dialogue with commercial vendors is necessarily part of this,” Ms. Denis said.

Provinces have authority over whether payments to plasma donors are allowed within their borders. Three of them – Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia – have banned the practice.

Health Canada spokesperson André Gagnon said in a statement that only CBS and Héma-Québec are authorized to distribute plasma products in Canada, meaning any private operators must strike a deal with them before their products are used in Canada. All plasma products must be authorized by Health Canada before being used.

Canadian Blood Services urges people to donate as it faces collection challenges

Industry observers say the most likely commercial partner for CBS is Grifols, an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Spain. The company purchased a large-scale plasma processing facility in Montreal in 2020, and in January bought an existing for-profit plasma donation centre in Winnipeg.

In a press release announcing the acquisitions, Grifols said they were part of its “growth strategy” in Canada.

CBS did not say whether or not it has been in talks with Grifols, and Grifols did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Jaworski, a Canadian who teaches business ethics at Georgetown University and who has long argued for paying plasma donors, said all the evidence he has seen points to Grifols as a likely partner for CBS.

He said there are two ways Grifols could work with the organization.

One would be to enter into a public-private partnership, as Grifols did in Egypt in 2020. The company and the Egyptian government formed a new venture, which was 51-per-cent publicly owned, to collect plasma. The goal was to make the country self-sufficient and export plasma to other countries in the region.

The second option would be for Grifols to act as a collection agent on behalf of CBS, Dr. Jaworski said. This could enable the company to make use of exemptions in laws that ban payments for plasma. For example, Ontario’s paid plasma ban contains an exception for CBS.

Opinion: Canada should have scrapped its homophobic ban on blood donations from gay men long ago

Opinion: Boycotting Canadian Blood Services for ending its mask mandate is illogical – but understandable

Dr. Jaworski said either option could have the effect of giving the company a local monopoly on paying for plasma. He said Grifols has been forced to increase the amount it is paying donors in the United States because of competition from other plasma donation agents – a dynamic that might not exist in Canada.

“The amount of money they would offer to donors would be set by them, without any competitive pressures,” Dr. Jaworski said. “This is a reason this is really attractive to them.”

Advocates for a voluntary blood donation system say CBS and the provinces should see how the current expansion plan works out before turning to corporations for help.

“Entering into any partnership with for-profit plasma companies in Canada undermines the voluntary donor system and assigns control of our plasma supply to private companies,” said Kat Lanteigne, executive director of the advocacy group BloodWatch.

Ms. Lanteigne said working with an international company raises the risk of Canadian plasma being exported globally, which would undermine CBS’s goal of domestic self-sufficiency.

CBS’s Ms. Denis said the organization will work to ensure plasma collected in Canada stays in Canada.

An expert panel commissioned by Health Canada reported in 2018 that there was little evidence that paid plasma was less safe than donated plasma.

CBS is also making renewed appeals to Canadians to donate blood, as supplies dwindle this summer. The organization recommends either an eight or 10-day stockpile of each blood type.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the non-profit’s website showed inventory levels for most blood types at less than a week’s supply, with O- and O+ – the types most often given during emergencies – at just three days each.

With a report from Emerald Bensadoun

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.