Pay-for-plasma collection coming to Alberta by end of the year

A private Canadian company that pays donors for their plasma will open sites in Edmonton and Calgary this fall, a move faciliated by repeal of a bill banning paid donations.

Repeal of NDP bill last fall clears way for Canadian Plasma Resources to set up shop

Representatives from Canadian Plasma Resources, including a lobbyist listed on the federal registry, met with New Brunswick Health Minister Victor Boudreau earlier this year. (CBC)

A private Canadian company that pays donors for their plasma will open sites in Edmonton and Calgary this fall, a move expected to more than double its collection capacity. 

Canadian Plasma Resources currently operates two facilities — one in Saskatoon, which opened in 2016, and another in Moncton, N.B., which opened in 2017.

Plasma, the straw-coloured liquid in which blood cells are suspended, is used in the manufacture of therapies for a range of health conditions.

The passage in November of Bill 204, the Voluntary Blood Donations Repeal Act, has cleared the way for Canadian Plasma Resources to move into Alberta. The private member's bill was introduced by Tany Yao, the UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. 

Barzin Bahardoust, the company's CEO, said it was ready to move once the bill was proclaimed.

"We were doing some initial preparation, site selection and so on," Bahardoust told CBC News in an interview.

"So when the bill passed, we moved quickly and now we are waiting for permits in both Edmonton and Calgary."

The Saskatoon and Moncton facilities each have a capacity for 40,000 litres of plasma.

The Edmonton and Calgary sites will have capacity for 100,000 litres of plasma — 2½ times larger than the other locations. 

Bahardoust said the company wants to add two more Alberta sites in 2022, possibly in Red Deer and Lethbridge.

The sizes of those facilities would be similar to Saskatchewan and New Brunswick locations. The company estimates the four Alberta sites would create 230 jobs. 

The pay-for-plasma model used by Canadian Plasma Resources has created controversy.

Health Canada, which regulates blood donations in Canada, allows donors to contribute plasma twice a week. Canadian Plasma Resources pays $30 for the first donation, and as much as $60 for a second donation within the next seven days.

The company says its model increases the amount of plasma donated by Canadians, which in turn increases supply of life-saving plasma protein drug therapies, reducing Canada's reliance on foreign sources.

But critics say the plasma is exported to countries with the processing and manufacturing capacity Canada lacks, with no guarantees the finished product will be used by Canadians.

British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario have bans on paid plasma donations. 

Canadian Blood Services, the agency that manages Canada's blood system, relies on voluntary donations. 

Lobbying started in 2019

CPR's decision to move into Alberta comes as no surprise to Edmonton-Glenora MLA Sarah Hoffman, who was minister of health during the NDP's four years in government. 

Bill 204 repealed legislation banning paid plasma donations that had passed in the spring of 2017. Hoffman had introduced Bill 3 to prevent private businesses from turning blood donations into profit.

"Blood is just too precious to go to the highest bidder," Hoffman told the legislature on March 13, 2017. 

In an interview last week, Hoffman said commercial plasma collection firms take advantage of Albertans' generosity in donating blood.

"That generosity shouldn't be exploited and made into a for-profit enterprise," she said Thursday. "I believe that Canadians who donate blood products do because they want to help other Canadians."

Hoffman remains committed to the voluntary donation system run by Canadian Blood Services. CBS has opened plasma collection sites in Lethbridge and Sudbury. Another location is scheduled to open in Kelowna this summer. 

The repeal of Hoffman's bill came after both Canadian Plasma Resources and the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a group that that represents manufacturers of plasma protein therapies, started lobbying the United Conservative Party government shortly after it assumed power in 2019.

Health Canada allows people to donate plasma twice a week. (Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)

Hoffman's bill was opposed by members of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative caucuses. The two parties united several months later to form the UCP. 

Bahardoust said his company reached out after the April 2019 election to see if the new UCP government held the same position as the Wildrose and PCs. It did. 

Yao's bill was referred to a standing committee of MLAs that reviews private members' bills before it returned to the legislature for additional debate during the fall sitting. The bill became law in early December.

During debate last summer, Yao said Canada needed to increase its domestic plasma supply. He said a system that focused solely on voluntary donations wouldn't accomplish that.

"This bill is about giving patients treatments that they require to live, and all opposed members need to wake up and see that our supply will drop if we stay the course," he said. 

Canadian Blood Services could not make anyone available for an interview. 

Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, told MLAs on the private members' bills committee in July that while his organization did not oppose commercial plasma collection, allowing it wouldn't necessarily solve supply problems.

Sher said the smaller sites in Saskatoon and Moncton haven't hurt the number of voluntary donations. But he suggested a wide expansion of paid plasma sties could have a negative effect.

"I cannot say with certainty that if this bill passes and the legislation is repealed and there is rapid expansion of the large-scale commercial plasma collection industry, it won't have a negative impact on the blood sector," Sher said.

"I am concerned about this. My colleagues in the United States are seeing that impact and expressing grave concern."

Bahardoust said Canadian Plasma Resources has regulatory approval from Health Canada. He said his company follows additional safety standards set by blood protein fractionators which exceed those required by Canadian regulators. 

He rejected arguments that paid donations hurt the voluntary system. He said surveys of the company's plasma donors have shown at least 90 per cent have never donated blood before.

"Yes, there is some overlap, but I think the overlap is very small and is not large enough to harm the voluntary system," he said.

Bahardoust said he wasn't able to reveal the locations of the Edmonton and Calgary sites until the company has received construction permits.

The company plans to start hiring a couple of months before opening.