AMERICAN RED CROSS: Blood-Screening Process Spurs Debate
The American Red Cross is set to "deploy new blood-scrubbing technology that it hopes will eliminate the already small risk of catching viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C" from donated blood and plasma, the Washington Post reports. The new process "is part of a larger program aimed at cleaning blood stored by the Red Cross and other banks of all viruses." According to the Post, "[s]ometime early in the next century, it is hoped that blood banks will be able to erect a set of safety barriers so impenetrable that no U.S. citizen need fear getting sick from donated blood." American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole said, "We feel it's our moral responsibility to make the blood supply as safe as we can possibly make it. Lives depend on it." The new plasma-treatment process, developed by V.I. Technologies Inc., relies on "chemicals that alter the fatty membranes of many viruses, rendering them incapable of causing disease." The Red Cross is waiting for FDA approval of the procedure, which it expects to receive sometime this summer. An FDA advisory committee recently voted 13-0 in favor of approval.
The Continuing Effort
Despite the new plasma-cleaning technology, "FDA leaders emphasized that testing, not treatment, of donated blood will remain the nation's prime safeguard against transmission of serious diseases." And since the chemicals used in the plasma-treatment process kill red blood cells, the government "has been pushing the biotechnology industry to develop better tests for blood." The Post notes that the Red Cross and San Diego-based Gen-Probe Inc. "expect to begin a limited rollout later this year of an improved test for HIV and hepatitis C," which, if successful, could gain full FDA approval in 1999 or 2000. In addition, the Red Cross has spent $286 million since 1991 to "modernize its blood operations" (Gillis, 4/25).
Independent blood banks have complained to the Justice Department that "if the Red Cross controls the new technology for scrubbing ... plasma, smaller banks that provide half of the nation's blood could be forced out of business." America's Blood Centers, a trade group representing 72 community blood banks, charged that the American Red Cross engaged in "a pattern of behavior ... designed to drive ABC's members ... out of business." The group "even raised the specter of mass shortages" should the Red Cross contract stand. Red Cross spokesperson Mike Fulwider disputed the charge, saying the organization was prepared to provide clean blood "to any hospital or blood bank requesting it" (4/26).