The Big Business of Blood Plasma

From families low on income to students struggling to cover their college expenses, the appeal of donating plasma is simple, quick access to much needed cash.  There are a few requirements; you must be 18 years of age, weigh over 110 pounds, and have passed medical examinations. The first donation will take a little longer, about 2 hours, but thereafter, visits take about 90 minutes. The compensation? A debit card you can use immediately. Compensation varies by location and by the amount of plasma you are able to give (depending on weight) and will typically fluctuate between $20-$50 per donation. In the United States, donors can give plasma up to twice a week. For families in dire need of income, this can translate to a few hundred dollars a month. 

For the extremely poor, a few hundred dollars a month of stable income or a $40 payment to cover an unanticipated expense is an invaluable lifeline. As the number of Americans living in extreme poverty has risen in the past two decades, it may not come as a coincidence that the number of people donating plasma has also raised dramatically. In 2014, 32.6 million people donated plasma, a number over 3 times greater than the quantity of donations made 10 years prior.  The number of plasma centers too has increased; a hundred centers opened during the Great Recession alone.  There are now over 500 centers scattered across the country. 

To lure new donors and incentivize repeat donors, most plasma donation centers have special promotions, ranging from bonus payouts to rewards programs. But why the need for more and more donations? The reason is clear: the business of source plasma is very profitable. According to the FDA, source plasma, the type of plasma that most plasma clinics collect, is intended as source material for further manufacturing. This means that pharmaceutical companies buy plasma, the fluid portion of human blood, to develop therapies and medications to treat people with rare, chronic diseases and disorders. These therapies are typically very expensive; “the annual cost of therapy using a plasma-derived therapeutic protein product can easily exceed $200,000.” 

The United States provides 65% of the world’s source plasma supply, and that is in no small part due to the fact that the US is one of the few countries where compensation to donors is legal (companies claim that compensation is for time spent giving plasma, not for the plasma itself). The majority of the remaining plasma collections come from Europe. Today, the global plasma industry has annual sales of more than $14 billion and projections of more than 10% annual growth in demand for plasma-derived therapies is expected.  

It is no wonder why plasma donation centers have continued to pop up across the country, and it should not come as a surprise that they tend to be disproportionately positioned in or around poor areas, where the most likely donors, the impoverished, reside. As demand for plasma-derived therapies continues to rise, so will the need for donors. For those in desperate need of immediate cash, selling their “time” at plasma donation clinics will remain a viable option to earn income.


- Analidis Ochoa-Bendaña