Pharma companies sue for the right to buy blood From Mexicans along border


IMAGE/Duck Duck Go

In the year since the United States blocked Mexicans from entering the country to sell their blood, the two global pharmaceutical companies that operate the largest number of plasma clinics along the border say they have seen a sharp drop in supply.

In a suit challenging the ban, the companies acknowledged for the first time the extent to which Mexicans visiting the U.S. on short-term visas contribute to the world’s supply of blood plasma. In court filings, the companies revealed that up to 10% of the blood plasma collected in the U.S. — millions of liters a year — came from Mexicans who crossed the border with visas that allow brief visits for business and tourism.

The legal challenge by Spain-based Grifols and CSL of Australia relates to an announcement last June that U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn’t permit Mexican citizens to cross into the U.S. on temporary visas to sell their blood plasma. The suit was initially dismissed by a federal judge but reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The drug companies’ lawyers have said in court filings that the sharp reduction in Mexicans selling blood to the border clinics is contributing to a worldwide shortage of plasma and is “precipitating a worldwide public-health crisis that is costing patients dearly.”

ProPublica, ARD German TV and Searchlight New Mexico reported in 2019 that thousands of Mexicans were crossing the border to donate blood as often as twice a week, earning as much as $400 per month. Selling blood has been illegal in Mexico since 1987.

Many countries place strict limits on blood donations — Germany, for example, allows a maximum of 60 donations per year with intensive checkups before every fifth donation. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require comparable donor checkups and allows people visiting American clinics to sell their blood twice a week, or up to 104 times a year.

The limits that other countries set on blood donations have made the U.S. one of the world’s leading exporters of blood. In 2020, U.S. facilities collected 38.2 million liters of plasma for the production of medicine, accounting for approximately 60% of such blood plasma collected worldwide.

Until now, it has been unclear how much of the U.S. blood plasma supply came from Mexican citizens, and pharmaceutical companies had downplayed border clinics’ role in meeting demand for plasma. Grifols noted in 2019 that “more than 93% of the centers [are] at a far distance from the border between the U.S. and Mexico.”

But in its recent court filings, Grifols stressed the importance of the border clinics. A statement from a company executive disclosed that at the company’s Texas centers alone, there were “approximately 30,000 Mexican nationals donating and supplying over 600,000 liters of plasma [a year].” He describes Mexican donors as “loyal and selfless in their commitment to donating plasma.”

According to a filing by Grifols and CSL, the 24 border centers run by Grifols alone account for an “annual economic impact of well over $150 million” and represent approximately 1,000 jobs.

The trade organization for the pharmaceutical companies, the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, has similarly reframed its arguments on the issue. In a 2019 statement, the association urged reporters not to attach any significance to “donation centers that happen to fall within areas states define as border zones.” It said then that it had no estimate of how much blood was being bought at the border or whether the amount was disproportionate when compared to the rest of the country.

But a recent court filing by the association said there are 52 plasma centers in the border zone, and “the average center along the border collects higher than average (31% more) plasma than the average center nationwide.”

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