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American Society of Microbiology

June, 1999

Several Huge Lawsuits Pending Over Tainted Blood in Canada

Late in January, attorneys in Toronto filed a $1 billion (Canadian) class-action lawsuit on behalf of hemophiliacs who developed hepatitis from their use of tainted blood supplied by the Canadian Red Cross Society about a decade ago. Attorneys in British Columbia filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of children who were infected with hepatitis C through their use of tainted blood.

Meanwhile, late in February in Washington, D.C., a group of Canadian hemophiliacs announced plans to file a multibillion-dollar lawsuit in the United States over the collection and sale of the tainted blood to the Canadian Red Cross. These legal actions mark a response to problems over contaminated blood products that date back at least to 1986 and involve several companies, agencies of the Canadian federal government, and several thousand blood product recipients.

The lawsuit filed early this year in Toronto names several parties, including the Canadian Bureau of Biologics, which was the federal agency responsible for monitoring blood screening programs throughout the country, Continental Pharma Cryosan Ltd. of Montreal (a blood broker), and Connaught Laboratories of Toronto, the main supplier in Canada of fractionated blood products, including clotting factors used by hemophiliacs.

From 1986-1990, Canadians were faced with periodic shortfalls in donor-supplied blood plasma. Under federal government pressure, Connaught offset the shortages by purchasing plasma from several brokers of such products, including Continental Pharma Cryosan. One available source of such plasma was Health Management Associates (HMA), a private company which ceased operations in 1994. During that earlier period, HMA sometimes acquired blood plasma from prisoners, following a practice that, because of hepatitis concerns, had been officially terminated in 1971 in Canada-- and in 1982 in the United States [NOT SO … prison plasma pumped through 1994 in BOTH Arkansas and Louisiana under Liddy Dole's "revamped" blood system].

Nonetheless, prisoners at the Department of Corrections unit in Grady, Ark., some of whom had symptoms of hepatitis or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), were still permitted to donate plasma. "Unbelievably, the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] allowed the high-risk plasma tobe exported to Canada to be put in the veins of innocent Canadians,'' says Michael McCarthy, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by Canadian hemophiliacs in late January.

"Why, if this dangerous plasma wasn't safe enough for American use, was it suitable for their neighbors?''

Although Connaught bought some of that plasma, company representatives say that no one at the company was aware of its source. From such materials, the company prepared blood products which were sold to the Canadian Red Cross Society. No screening of the blood products was done by Connaught or the Red Cross Society.

"Canadians have not fully understood how this blood [plasma] got into the country,'' says Erma Chapman, president of the Canadian Hemophilia Society. "It should have gone straight down the drain.'' The subsequent distributions of tainted blood products between 1986 and 1990 led to hepatitis C virus infections among an estimated 6,600 people and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections among an estimated 1,100 individuals.

Hepatitis C infection can lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, and carcinoma. Before the hepatitis C virus was identified in 1989, this disease was known as non-A, non-B viral hepatitis. Despite the lack of identity of the causative agent, in 1986 U.S. regulatory officials instituted surrogate testing as a blood screening procedure for non-A, non-B viral hepatitis. However, although the Canadian Red Cross Society chose not to employ this testing procedure, direct testing of blood products was instituted in late 1990 after the hepatitis C virus was identified.

During the same period the Canadian Red Cross deliberately exhausted its inventory of non-heat-treated blood concentrates before releasing heat-treated (AIDS-inactivated) concentrates. Revelations of the use of tainted blood in Canada triggered the 1994 appointment by the federal government of Justice Horace Krever to probe this incident. His report, released in December 1997, describes a "systemic failure'' of Canada's blood system.

In the report, he is particularly critical of the Canadian Red Cross Society's "ineffective and half-hearted'' response. Among the report's 50 recommendations is the ouster of the Canadian Red Cross Society from the blood supply business. After this recommendation was implemented, the federal Canadian Blood Services assumed responsibility for acquiring, testing, and distributing all blood and blood products in Canada.

Now every unit of donated blood in Canada is tested for antibodies to the hepatitis B and C viruses, HIV-1 and -2, and human T-cell lymphotrophic viruses 1 and 2. Units testing positive (including those established as being falsely positive) are destroyed. Donors of rejected blood are barred from future donation. Genome amplification testing is being implemented as another hepatitis C screening procedure. The new test will detect blood contaminated as recently as 15-20 days prior to donation. Current enzyme-linked immunosorbant assays do not detect blood contaminated within 45 days before donation.

Elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy, the Laboratory Center for Disease Control has increased the surveillance program of laboratories engaged in the handling and manufacture of blood products. Justice Krever also proposed a no-fault approach for compensating all recipients of tainted blood in Canada. The federal government developed this proposal into a workable plan, which is pending subject to a legal ruling in three provinces.

The plan calls for providing $1.1 billion dollars to the estimated 6,600 individuals who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood during 1986-1990, with each affected individual to receive at least $10,000. Depending on the severity of the disease, however, this lump-sum payment could be as much as $200,000. Compensation for lost wages and some medical expenses may also be possible. The compensation offer is essentially an out-of-court settlement and requires those accepting it to refrain from further legal action.

This offer would exclude an estimated 22,000 people who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood before 1986, when no reliable blood screening was available. Individuals infected after 1990 have also been excluded from compensation. The provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec have extended the compensation to those infected prior to 1986. The federal government has conceded that its liability is greatest in the years 1986-1990, since a screening procedure for hepatitis C was available but was not used.

Those who became infected with HIV are subject to a separate compensation package. Each affected individual would receive a lump sum payment of $120,000 over four years and $30,000 annually thereafter. The federal governments pending compensation offer will become final shortly after the provincial legal decisions scheduled for 9 April. Meanwhile, the pending lawsuits, as well as others which have been filed, exceed $9 billion dollars Canadian.

These lawsuits seek to extend compensation to before and after the 1986-1990 period and to increase the compensation to those infected with tainted blood between these years. Opinion on the government compensation plan is mixed. The Hepatitis C Society of Canada is unhappy with the proposed federal compensation package, in part because of its lack of special provisions for children. Vancouver lawyer Jim Poyner has seen the text of the compensation package, which has not yet been made public. Poyner, who will represent atleast three children in a lawsuit against the federal and British Columbia governments, says that the special needs of children have not been addressed by the hepatitis C compensation offer. However, another Vancouver lawyer, J. J. Camp, who negotiated on behalf of some British Columbians, knows of only two of 700 potential recipients who will reject the compensation offer.

"If you don't accept this deal, you must litigate,'' he said. "If you litigate, you spend a fortune, spend years in court, and, at the end of the ordeal, maybe you get a deal as good as this one.''

Brian Hoyle
Brian Hoyle is a science writer based in Bedford, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Related Topics

  • CLINTON'S SCOTTISH COURT WARNING The Daly Record (UK) 31 October 2005
  • New questions on tainted blood. U.S. prison supplied it despite dangers. Film Documentary called disturbing by RCMP- DENNIS BUECKERT CANADIAN PRESS