Health Canada assisted private plasma clinics, newly released documents say

Government officials knew back in 2010 they were going to help privatize part of the Canadian blood plasma sector but the public wasn't widely informed until three years later when clinics were poised to open, advocates say.

'They should have said, no thank you, we have a public blood system here,' advocate says

Kat Lanteigne of of BloodWatch was joined by NDP health critic Don Davies at a news conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Krever Report, where they released documents they say contain Health Canada communications with private plasma businesses going back to 2010. (CPAC)

A coalition of health advocates recently held a news conference on Parliament Hill to release more than 800 documents showing how Health Canada officials worked behind the scenes to change Canada's voluntary blood plasma donation system.

Kat Lanteigne of BloodWatch said the documents reveal that government officials knew back in 2010 that they were helping to privatize part of the Canadian plasma sector. The officials knew they were opening up the Canadian plasma market to a large multinational company, Biotech AG, which was in partnership with a smaller company, Canadian Plasma Resources.

"They were actually trying to create a secondary plasma collector in this country and create an American-style model," Lanteigne said. "That's what was so shocking."

Blood and plasma bags are pictured here. Plasma is the straw-coloured portion of blood that is processed into pharmaceutical products for patients. (Marion Berard/AFP/Getty Images)

BloodWatch, a group advocating to preserve a completely voluntary blood donor system in Canada, obtained the documents under access to information laws. 

The documents, including internal government emails and minutes of meetings, show Health Canada bureaucrats assisting in the launch of the new business — a chain of clinics that would harvest plasma from Canadians who would be paid.

The public first learned about the plans in 2013 when CBC News reported that the first two clinics were preparing to open for business. 

[The federal government] should have said, 'no thank you we have a public blood system here, we're not going to support a secondary operator,'" Lanteigne said.

When the Ontario government learned that three paid plasma clinics were poised to open in Toronto and Hamilton, the province passed a law banning them.

But internal Health Canada emails reveal bureaucrats continued to work with the plasma company even while the Ontario debate unfolded.

At one point during the Ontario controversy, Jim Pimblett, the lobbyist for the plasma company, emailed a Health Canada bureaucrat to say that media reports were favourable to the company. In another document, Health Canada and the private plasma company agreed on the need to co-ordinate their responses to media questions.

Company plans 10 paid plasma centres

"I have no comment on the correspondence released under the access to information request," said Canadian Plasma Resources CEO Barzin Bahardoust.

He told CBC News in an email that he still plans to open 10 paid plasma centres across Canada along with a plasma processing facility. Right now the company has paid clinics in Saskatoon and Moncton, N.B.

According to the Canadian Plasma Resources website, people can be paid up to $50 per donation.

A previous access to information request by BloodWatch turned up documents showing that Canada's national blood agency warned Health Canada that the private clinics might draw donors away from the voluntary system. The agency says it has noticed a drop in voluntary blood donations in Saskatoon, where people can be paid for their plasma.

BloodWatch, along with the Canadian Health Coalition and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, released the documents in the foyer of the House of Commons on November 20 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Krever Commission, as a reminder about Canada's troubled history of managing the blood supply.  

The Krever Commission investigated Canada's tained blood scandal, after hundreds of Canadians were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C through blood transfusions in the 1980s. 

One of the key recommendations by Judge Horace Krever at the time was to "ensure that blood products used in Canada are made from the blood and plasma collected from unpaid donors."

The World Health Organization also recommends that donors not be paid.

Health Canada said in an email that it has appointed a panel of experts to study the sustainability of Canada's plasma supply. Most of the plasma used in Canada is manufactured into pharmaceutical products including albumin, clotting factors, and immune globulins (IGIV). Those products are processed using plasma collected from donors in the U.S., who are paid. 

As they read through the documents, the BloodWatch group said, they were surprised at the access the private clinic had to Health Canada officials.

"We have asked for years for meetings with Health Canada and meetings with the health minister and we have been denied every single time," Lanteigne said.


Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a science correspondent for CBC News. She joined CBC in 1991, and has spent 25 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs, with a particular interest in science and medicine.