The government has announced that it is lifting its 22-year ban on the use of plasma from UK blood donors, enabling them to help contribute to treatments that could help people suffering from cancers and rare immune diseases.

In April 2021 the government launched a critical risk assessment review looking at the potential dangers of lifting the ban, in place since 1999, stating that the potential risks of using UK plasma would be negligible.

Previously, the UK had solely relied on imports from businesses specialising in global pharmaceuticals, which has led to supply problems due to issues with global freight that have been seen since 2020.

The news has been warmly received by the over 17,000 people who rely on immunoglobin treatment, which uses blood plasma, to help fight rare diseases, as well as manage conditions such as haemophilia. However, the reason why the ban was put in place to begin with is also important.

Battling A Blood Transfusion Epidemic

The UK has had historic issues with blood transfusions, with a contaminated blood products scandal contributing to major outbreaks of Hepatitis in the 1970s and HIV in the 1980s with legal action that is still ongoing.

Because of this, the UK banned any person who had received a blood transfusion from giving blood themselves in 1980. Nearly 20 years later, however, another major public health crisis led to further restrictions that up until recently all but forced the UK to rely on imported blood plasma.

In the 1980s, there was an epidemic of cows that were infected with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, known in some media circles as “mad cow disease”), but by the 1990s it was learned that the disease could spread not only to other animals but to humans as well.

The variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (vCJD) started to infect humans and cause them to suffer symptoms similar to CJD but at much younger ages, causing neurological degeneration which could become fatal.

This led to a range of measures to try and control the disease, such as banning beef on the bone for two years, lengthy export bans for beef, and a ban on the use of UK blood for creating blood products in 1999, three years after the first official announcement of the connection between beef and vCJD.

Since then, the majority of blood plasma has been imported from the United States, but with a range of issues affecting importing of blood products, a domestic supply became far more important.

However, vCJD, a disease primarily caused by misfolding proteins, had a symptomatic and asymptomatic form, and the fear was that by allowing UK blood as part of a larger pool of plasma to create blood products, it had the chance of infecting people on a large scale.

This was the origins of the Factor VIII scandal in the United States, where untested and unchecked blood provided from Arkansas prisoners turned out to be infected with hepatitis. As a result, the ban remained, with the fear even as late as 2013 that lifting the band could cause the death toll from vCJD to quintuple.

However, the more recent risk assessments suggest that this figure may have been based on older methodologies and the actual risk of new vCJD cases was negligible. This, combined with the need for immunoglobulin products outweighing the minimal risks, led to the ban being lifted after 22 years.