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Ontario plans better oversight of chemo drugs; ban paying people for their blood

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TORONTO - Ontario plans to join Quebec in banning payments to people for their blood and blood plasma after a paid-plasma clinic in Toronto opened its doors to donors.

The governing Liberals re-introduced legislation Wednesday that also incorporates recommended changes to pharmacy oversight after more than 1,200 cancer patients in Ontario and New Brunswick received diluted chemotherapy drugs.

The proposed measures include giving the Ontario College of Pharmacists the power to inspect and license hospital pharmacies and potentially other locations in the future.

They say British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick have similar rules.

The Liberals have been trying to prohibit any monetary compensation to people for their blood and plasma, such as reimbursing them for expenses, for more than a year.

The new bill would ensure the poor aren't exploited or coerced, said Health Minister Eric Hoskins.

The only exceptions would be blood and plasma given only for research and emergency collection due to a major catastrophic event, he said.

"This decision to prohibit payment for blood and plasma donations will in no way reduce the supply or the availability of blood and blood products for Ontarians," Hoskins said.

"But it will protect the integrity of our current blood donation system — a system that works."

Plasma is a component of blood that can be used for transfusions and to make drugs that can treat patients for conditions like burns, severe infections and hemophilia.

The legislation would give the province the power to decide which facilities require a licence and which labs or specimen collection centres can have one.

Health Canada currently receives applications for licences, but the provinces and territories can decide whether to allow payment for plasma donors.

Canadian Plasma Resources invested about $8.5 million in three clinics: two in Toronto and one in Hamilton, said chief executive Barzin Bahardoust.

One clinic in downtown Toronto has been open to donors since March to collect plasma for research purposes, which is permitted by Health Canada. Prospective donors go through a series of tests and interviews, and if they're approved, they can receive a $25 charity donation to the Hospital for Sick Children or $25 Visa gift cards that can't be converted to cash, Bahardoust said.

The company applied for an establishment licence from the federal government in 2012 that would allow them to collect plasma to make pharmaceutical products, but Health Canada said it's still under review.

Bahardoust said he hopes Ontario's legislation will make a distinction between plasma used in manufacturing drugs — which is in short supply in Canada — and fresh blood and plasma used for transfusions, which should continue to be collected from voluntary donors.

"There are manufacturing steps that inactivate or remove viruses or parasites in the manufacturing of these drugs which are not applicable to blood or plasma for transfusion," he said.

"It's a completely different product. They are not interchangeable."

Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, which represents companies that make plasma products, said it can take hundreds of donations to make a single therapy and patients wouldn't have the treatment they need without committed donors.

Hoskins insists there would be no shortage of products since Ontario has what it needs. But he acknowledged that Canada receives about 70 per cent of its plasma supplies from outside the country, where people are paid for it. The rest comes from Canadian Blood Services.

Health Canada said on its website that paid plasma donors are "critical" to ensuring a sufficient supply of blood products and the supply from the United States is "extremely safe."

"The safety requirements of the plasma protein products is extraordinary," said Bahardoust. "There has not been a single case of transmission of disease in the last 25 years through plasma protein products."

But they can't test for the next blood-bourne pathogen or disease if they don't know what it may be, said Antonia Swann, whose husband died after contracting HIV and hepatitis C from tainted blood.

She said she fears another contamination tragedy if donors are paid, which is more likely to attract the homeless and other vulnerable people.

"We can't change the past, but what we can do is focus on how to make the blood system as safe as possible," Swann said.

If the legislation passes as is, Canadian Plasma Resources will likely move out of Ontario along with a $300-million plan that includes building a plasma manufacturing facility, said Bahardoust.

Winnipeg-based drug maker Cangene, which has been operating for decades, is authorized to pay donors for blood plasma, which is used in its products.

The federal government launched a public inquiry in 1993 after thousands of people in Canada were infected with HIV and hepatitis C after receiving tainted blood transfusions in the 1980s.

Justice Horace Krever's 1997 report recommended that blood donors shouldn't be paid for their donations, except in rare circumstances.

Hoskins said the new legislation combines two separate bills that were automatically scrapped when the June 12 provincial election was called. The Liberals won a majority of seats in the legislature, which means the new bill is almost certain to become law.

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