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Thursday, May 22, 2003


Blood business

Douglas Starr wrote an essential book about the trade of blood, entitled, no doubt by an agent, Blood: the Epic History of Medicine and Commerce. . One of the book's major concerns was the way the blood industry accidentally spread AIDS to hemophiliacs. There's a chapter excerpt from the book on a PBS site. We have to quote this graf, which explains how the blood business became a moneymaker after new techniques allowed companies to extract plasma, and thus made it possible to up the amount of blood a donor could give dramatically:

"New classes of people became involved -- shadier buyers, more desperate sellers. Experts had warned about the potential for abuse. During a 1966 conference at Cohn's Protein Foundation, Dr. Tibor Greenwalt, a leader in nonprofit blood banking, cautioned against "exploiting for its proteins a population which is least able to donate them" -- yet that gave little pause to commercial entrepreneurs. Tom Asher, a fifty-year veteran of the plasma industry who worked as a manager for the Hyland division of Baxter Laboratories, ruefully recalled that his company set up its first center at Fourth and Town streets in Los Angeles -- "absolute dead center, Skid Row. We'd immunize donors with tetanus to increase their antibodies for tetanus gamma globulin. When hurried, our doctor, who was also the bouncer, would occasionally give them shots of tetanus antigen right through their trousers." Later the company took to "bankrolling all sorts of characters" to meet the booming demand for source plasma, many with questionable ethics. Another Los Angeles center, called Doctors Blood Bank and run by two local pathologists, paid donors in chits redeemable at a local liquor store."

Starr points out that blood became a major third world industry. Nicarauga, under the malign vampire, Somoza, became a major blood and plasma supplier, for instance -- an industry that Somoza took a big cut from -- and in fact it became a major political factor in the Somoza overthrow. The owner of Plasmaferesis assassinated the editor of La Prensa, apparently on Somoza's orders, after the paper investigated the "House of Dracula. More importantly, the hemophilliac medicines that required compounding thousands of different donations of plasma together was starting to circulate in the First World. Factor VIII was a standard, profitable medical instrument. And it was a loaded gun. As Starr shows, AIDS among hemophiliac's was, perhaps, the first neo-liberal epidemic: it came from unregulated free trade, it came out of the principles of that trade (the cost of labor and the cost of raw materials should be lowered to its lowest level), and it carried a social cost that was supposed to be cheerfully borne by third parties.

Well, we are going on about this because the NYT has fingered Bayer today. This should be a major story, although in today's atmosphere, who cares if companies kill?

Here are the first two grafs:

" A division of the pharmaceutical company Bayer sold millions of dollars of blood-clotting medicine for hemophiliacs � medicine that carried a high risk of transmitting AIDS � to Asia and Latin America in the mid-1980's while selling a new, safer product in the West, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

The Bayer unit, Cutter Biological, introduced its safer medicine in late February 1984 as evidence mounted that the earlier version was infecting hemophiliacs with H.I.V. Yet for over a year, the company continued to sell the old medicine overseas, prompting a United States regulator to accuse Cutter of breaking its promise to stop selling the product."

Remember that this took place in the gogo Reagan years. The Feds knew and disapproved of the Cutter sales. They called in Bayer officials. This is what happened:

"Federal regulators helped keep the overseas sales out of the public eye, the documents indicate. In May of 1985, believing that the companies had broken a voluntary agreement to withdraw the old medicine from the market, the Food and Drug Administration's regulator of blood products, Dr. Harry M. Meyer Jr., summoned officials of the companies to a meeting and ordered them to comply. "It was unacceptable for them to ship that material overseas," he said later in legal papers.

Even so, Dr. Meyer asked that the issue be "quietly solved without alerting the Congress, the medical community and the public," according to Cutter's account of the 1985 meeting. Dr. Meyer said later that he could not recall making that statement, but another blood-product company's summary of the meeting also noted that the F.D.A. wanted the matter settled "quickly and quietly." Dr. Meyer died in 2001."

Ah, the sweet, deadly smell of money! Undoubtedly Meyer was also thinking that the Reagan administration would reverse itself if it publicly looked like it was doing something unfriendly to a corp bud. Meanwhile, Cutter, acting, according to the latest Bayer broadside, was considering the ethics of lining its pockets by selling a majorly dangerous product to uninformed suckers in Asia. Hmm, what should a company that wants to make money in the dirtiest way possible do?

"The new product [heat treated plasma compound], meanwhile, was selling briskly, leaving Cutter with a problem: "There is excess nonheated inventory," the company noted in minutes of a meeting on Nov. 15, 1984.

"They needed to get the return for what they invested," explained Michael Baum, a Los Angeles lawyer who has represented dozens of United States hemophiliacs in suits against blood-product companies. "They paid the donors. They had processed the plasma, put it into vials, kept it in warehouses � and all that expense had already been incurred." (One vial is roughly equivalent to a small dose, though more may be needed to stop severe bleeding.)

At the November meeting, the minutes show, Cutter said it planned to "review international markets again to determine if more of this product can be sold." And in the months that followed, it had some success, exporting more than 5 million units (a typical vial might contain 250 units) in the first three months of 1985, documents show."

A saga of entrepreneurship that we can all be proud of.


Forbes quotes a "London based" analyst with this remark about the story:

"You can never entirely rule out upsets, but this looks like a rather old story and will probably not affect Bayer's financials."

Marx himself couldn't come up with a more deadpan line about the moral bankruptcy of capitalism.

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