If the poorest Americans are selling their blood, the US is in serious trouble

Looking to make extra cash? Don’t want to retrain in “cyber” but need a new gig? Good news! All you need to do is contract Covid-19, try not to die, then sell your antibody-rich blood plasma. Blood centres in the US are currently paying Covid-19 survivors a premium for their plasma, the yellowish liquid that makes up about 55% of blood. Apparently, you can get $100-$200 (£75-£155) a pop.

Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

It would seem some enterprising students have cottoned on to this money-making scheme. Administrators at Brigham Young University’s campus in Idaho recently announced that they are “deeply troubled” by accounts of students who have “intentionally” exposed themselves to coronavirus in order to get that sweet, sweet blood money. “There is never a need to resort to behaviour that endangers health or safety in order to make ends meet,” the school said.

A noble sentiment. However, the US would not have a booming blood plasma industry in the first place if it weren’t for the fact that so many people have to resort to potentially endangering their own health in order to make ends meet. Even before the coronavirus hit, low-income Americans were selling blood plasma to get by.

“Selling plasma is so common among America’s extremely poor that it can be thought of as their lifeblood,” a 2015 Atlantic article noted. The US is an outlier in this regard: you’re not allowed to sell your blood plasma in the UK or in many other developed countries. In the US, however, you can donate up to twice a week; the procedure typically takes about 90 minutes, and you will get somewhere between $30 (£23) and $50 (£38) a time. Which is more than the $7.25 (£5.50) per hour federal minimum wage. The companies bleeding you dry, of course, will be earning a whole lot more: blood plasma is a multibillion dollar business in the US. Indeed, blood products are the US’s 12th most valuable export; in 2016, they made up a greater percentage of all American exports than soya beans or computers. Industry people joke that the US, which produces 70% of all plasma worldwide, is “the Opec of plasma collections.”

A health worker taking plasma.

© Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters
A health worker taking plasma.

Giving blood plasma now and again won’t hurt you. Indeed, it is something we should all do if we can: plasma is desperately needed for life-saving therapies. In Britain, the NHS is urging Covid-19 survivors to donate plasma to treat those who fall ill during a second wave. But selling your blood plasma 104 times a year, as some desperate Americans do, may be another matter. Some experts and research have queried whether it is healthy, and even in the US if you donate plasma rather than sell, there are limits on how many times you can do it. Some people who sell their plasma frequently have also complained about things like migraines, numbness, and fainting.

I am not necessarily against the idea of

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