Blood Donations: An Investigation Reveals the Business that Thrives on the Backs of the Poor and the Marginalized

The French-German channel Arte has broadcast a very interesting investigation titled “The Blood Business.” From the documentary, we learned that in Switzerland, the blood donated to the Red Cross (which has a monopoly on collecting blood), gets sold for the most part to private businesses, with a turnover of around 10 million Swiss francs (9 million euros or approximately $10.3 million) a year. While most of those who donate blood believe that their blood ends up helping those who are sick and in need, in reality, only 20 percent ends up with them. The rest (80 percent) goes to the pharmaceutical industries, as the plasma in the blood is very rich in proteins and water and is therefore very sought after. For what? In order to make super-expensive (and profit-making) drugs, on which the lives of many patients depend. This has become possible since the blood trade was opened to private entities. Today, four multinationals – Octapharma, Baxter, CSL Behring and Grifois – share the market. According to Forbes, the CEO of Octapharma, Wolfgang Marguerre, has an inheritance worth $6 billion.

It’s even more concerning to discover that most of the plasma (whose origins remain hidden by industrial secrecy) is obtained from poor people (70 percent of whom reside in the U.S.), who receive a reward in exchange for their blood. In the documentary “The Blood Business,” journalist François Pilet goes to Cleveland, Ohio, in order to visit one of these blood donation centers. He is immediately stopped by the police on site, who prevent him from getting too close. However, it takes no more than interviewing several of those donating blood in order for him to understand the situation: These are often drug addicts, who receive their dose of cocaine or heroin in exchange for the monetary reward of the pharmaceutical company for the “donated” blood. Therefore, this blood is very likely at high risk of infection, but it can be donated simply by filling out an online questionnaire (choosing true or false) on a screen. Without any verification process.

The authors of the investigation did not only meet drug addicts; there is a constant stream of people in front of the center. Giving one’s blood is also a way of making it to the end of the month for many Americans who find themselves in precarious economic situations. For example, Mark receives a subsidy of $225 a month, which does not provide for a decent life, so he goes to sell his plasma twice a week for $60 for two liters (about four pints). There must be hundreds of thousands in Mark’s situation in the United States. There are around 500 centers like the one in Cleveland, all of them located in the poorest regions of the country.

The business model is simple: Buy plasma at a low cost in the U.S. and alter it to sell it for the price of gold. The plasma of those paid to donate blood ends up costing even less than that donated freely by volunteers, as the collection system in the U.S. has become almost “industrial,” with centers staying open six days a week, 12 hours a day. And their beds are always full.

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