American Society of Microbiology
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
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
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 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
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
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
"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 is a science writer based in Bedford, Nova
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DENNIS BUECKERT CANADIAN PRESS