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Another Shortage Caused By The Pandemic: Blood Plasma

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've been hearing about lots of shortages lately, from semiconductors to lumber. Keith Romer from our Planet Money podcast looked into a shortage of a different kind of product - human blood plasma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEITH ROMER: Robert Matthews donates his blood plasma twice a week, which has left him with a small, black, circular scar on the inside of his right elbow.

UNIDENTIFIED PHLEBOTOMIST: OK, you're going to feel a pinch. Make a fist and just relax.

ROMER: Does it hurt when the needle goes in?

ROBERT MATTHEWS: No, no. No, it doesn't hurt. It's a big needle, but it doesn't hurt.

ROMER: As I watch, his blood flows into a centrifuge, where his liquid plasma is separated from his red and white blood cells. For that plasma, Matthews will get around $50 from this B Positive Plasma Center located in a strip mall just off the highway in Cherry Hill, N.J. B Positive CEO Ben Ruder says, between the two centers he runs, he collects more than a thousand bottles of plasma a week. But that number is way down from previous years.

BENJAMIN RUDER: The pandemic has certainly done a huge toll to this industry. Nationwide, collections are down, with some centers experiencing a much worse drop-off.

ROMER: U.S. plasma collection fell by about 20% last year, in part because of people's worries about coming to collection centers during COVID, but also, Ruder says, because money from stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment made centers' payments to donors less attractive.

RUDER: You kind of see when the federal money comes in, the donations go down, and as people go through that money, donations rise. And then - (laughter) yeah.

ROMER: Critics argue that allowing payment for plasma lets this $25 billion industry exploit the poor and potentially risk their health. The United States is one of just five countries that fully allows companies to pay for plasma. But paying does seem to work. Two-thirds of the world's plasma supply comes from the U.S. - from donors like Robert Matthews.

Do you think, like, if they stopped paying people to come in here, would you come in as often?

MATTHEWS: Honestly? No, I wouldn't. No, I wouldn't.

ROMER: There is a separate uncompensated system for the plasma used for transfusions in hospitals. Meanwhile, the paid-for American plasma goes to pharmaceutical companies who use it to make treatments for autoimmune diseases, hemophilia and people undergoing chemotherapy. Dr. Antonio Condino-Neto works with patients with immune deficiencies in Brazil. He says without one particular plasma product, immunoglobulin, his patients would end up with constant infections.

ANTONIO CONDINO-NETO: They will stay sick and will have a very bad quality of life.

ROMER: Recently, Condino-Neto started getting some bad news from his immunoglobulin suppliers.

CONDINO-NETO: (Reading) Dear Dr. Condino, this is to let you know that very soon there will be a shortage of immunoglobulin products made by us because we don't have the plasma to make the products.

ROMER: And what will happen to your patients?

CONDINO-NETO: Those medications are not optional. The patients must receive immunoglobulin replacement therapy because, otherwise, they will get back the recurrent infections that may be severe and may kill them.

ROMER: Condino-Neto thinks even if there are problems with the way the U.S. collects plasma, there are even bigger problems when there is not enough plasma to go around. Keith Romer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.