In cities across the United States, tens of thousands of people wait in line every day to receive payments for giving their blood plasma to for-profit companies.
Plasma is the clear, straw-colored liquid part of blood that contains special proteins, which can be turned into life-saving drugs for immune disorders and other treatments, including those used in cancer and transplant patients.
While most people technically donate their plasma, they are paid for their time in doing so.
The payment they receive averages about $30 to $40, and for the companies, it is a $19.7 billion global industry.
The US supplies 94% of the paid plasma used around the world, with nearly 80% of the plasma centers located in America’s poorer neighborhoods.
Many of the people who frequent these centers to give their plasma are full-time workers and low-income Americans who are unable to make ends meet.
Foreign companies come to the US to get the plasma for certain drugs instead of where they are headquartered because the laws in the US are favorable for plasma donations.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the frequency and volume parameters for plasma donation, which have been in use for approximately 50 years.
According to the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, healthy, committed donors are the foundation of plasma-derived therapies.
“To guarantee a safe and adequate supply of donated source plasma, it is standard industry practice to compensate donors for the significant commitment of personal time and effort required to donate,” the PPTA said in a statement. “Without voluntary compensated plasma donors, a shortage of plasma would occur, and manufacturers would not have the plasma they need to produce the amount of vital, life-saving therapies that are required by individuals with severe, life-threatening, chronic diseases and disorders.”
Dr. Roger Kobayashi, a clinical professor of immunology at UCLA, said what was once “a simple gift of life has now evolved into a multinational, highly profitable corporate enterprise.” He added, “What was once an act of altruism has now evolved into an act of necessity or desperation.”
Many of the donors who give plasma do so to make ends meet, such as David, who donates for the money because he works a minimum wage job as a cashier and stocker. William, who has two children and works at a Burger King in Kansas City, Missouri, says he gives his blood plasma twice a week to make extra money.
Gaylord, who also lives in Kansas City, has two young children and gives plasma twice a week. On one occasion, Gaylord said he was giving plasma because his daughter had a birthday, and he needed $7.50 to buy her a bathing suit and money for a cake. He said he doesn’t want his kids to know about him giving his plasma.
“I try to take off my bandage before I get home. They ask me, ‘What’s that?’ I’m like, ‘It’s just a sore.’ I kind of try to, like, cover it up and change the subject. They don’t really need to know that, you know,” Gaylord said.
While the plasma donation industry has faced criticism from some who say it preys on vulnerable people, others argue that it provides a valuable service by collecting plasma from donors who might not otherwise have the means to give.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the plasma industry. While plasma donations are considered essential medical procedures and have been allowed to continue during the pandemic, the closure of many businesses and restrictions on movement have led to a decrease in donors. This has led to concerns about a shortage of plasma, which is used to make life-saving drugs for immune disorders and other medical conditions.
According to a report by ABC News, plasma donation centers have seen a drop in donations due to the pandemic. The report highlights the case of a 36-year-old woman who has been donating plasma for over a decade but had to stop during the pandemic because she was pregnant and did not want to risk her health. She is now facing financial difficulties because of the loss of income from plasma donation.
The pandemic has also highlighted the inequality in the plasma industry. According to the same report, the closure of businesses in low-income neighborhoods has led to a decrease in plasma donations in those areas. This has resulted in a concentration of plasma donation centers in wealthier areas, further exacerbating the inequality in the industry.
Despite these challenges, the plasma industry continues to grow. According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global plasma fractionation market was valued at $25.8 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $43.3 billion by 2028.
Critics of the industry argue that the compensation offered to donors is not enough and that there are long-term health risks associated with frequent plasma donation. Supporters argue that compensated plasma donation is necessary to ensure a sufficient supply of plasma for the production of life-saving drugs.
As the US continues to export plasma globally a debate over the ethics of compensated plasma donation is likely to continue, especially as inequality within the economy continues to drive the industry in ways that may jeopardize the safety of paid plasma donations.
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