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Mexican residents donated a significant portion of plasma in the U.S. Now they can't

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

You can't get paid for donating blood, but you can for plasma. For thousands of Mexicans living near the U.S. border, this created an opportunity. They would cross into the U.S. on short-term visas, donate plasma and return home cash in hand. But in June of last year, the federal government closed an immigration loophole that allowed this practice. Now two international pharmaceutical companies, Grifols and CSL, are suing the government to allow these trips to resume, claiming that up to 10% of all plasma donated in the U.S. came from Mexicans crossing the border. Stefanie Dodt has been reporting on this as a part of a collaboration between ProPublica and ARD German TV, and she joins us now. Welcome.

STEFANIE DODT: Thanks a lot for having me.

RASCOE: So can you start by telling us - why is plasma important? What is it used for?

DODT: So plasma is a super important ingredient for medicine that is used all around the world in - basically, in every operation room, you need something made out of plasma. Basically, the plasma is your antibody. So your health is basically concentrated in this plasma. And if you donate it, you basically donate your antibodies that can be transferred afterwards to someone else who is a need for that.

RASCOE: How important is the U.S. as a supplier of plasma to the world?

DODT: Roughly, like, 60% of the plasma collected in the entire world is coming from the United States. The United States is the only country in the world that allows up to two donations in a single week and allows also people to get paid and has pretty low standards on donor checkups. For example, in my country, in Germany, a donor has to be checked every fifth donation. You don't have that process in the United States.

RASCOE: Like, there can be issues with donating too much plasma.

DODT: So bodies - every body is different. And what I learned from the reporting, talking to a lot of doctors, is that there are some people who can maybe donate up to four times a week. There are others, for them, it could be risky to donate once a week. I talked to, for example, one donor, Genesis, who lives in Ciudad Juarez, and she was fainting a lot during and after the donation. She was sick very, very often. But she continued donating because of the money. This business uses the inequality along the U.S.-Mexican border, promising up to, in 2019, for - $100 a month for people who make, in Juarez, maybe on average, around $200.

RASCOE: And so tell me a little more about that. There were all of these facilities set up very close to the border. And in Mexico, selling plasma is illegal, right?

DODT: Correct. If you take one example, if you cross one of the main border bridges and then you walk for five minutes, then you basically fall into one of the first plasma donation centers. And what we see now from the court filings is that these centers made up to 10% of the entire blood plasma collected in the United States. And the companies also now reveal in the court filings that, of course, this was a strategic effort, as they call it, aiming towards Mexican nationals so they could walk over and, yeah, sell their blood plasma there.

RASCOE: So the federal government stepped in and took action on this?

DODT: So there's this health question. And then another issue that we also reported on was the question of the legality of using a visitor visa for Mexican nationals to cross the border into the states. And a year ago, after we started digging into this and after we published the reporting - and then after the pandemic started and the border was closed, and still some of the CBP officers decided to now officially let plasma donors cross, declaring them as an essential business. And others didn't let them cross at all. CBP then decided to issue an internal guidance, basically ending up halting the entire business. And that has been stopped now a year ago. The pharma companies now say they have lost more or less five - four million liters of blood plasma, so 6% of the entire plasma collected in the world.

RASCOE: How is that affecting people who need plasma?

DODT: It's a very slow business. So basically, if you have less plasma donated today, you will only feel that in about, like, eight to 10 months. Will there be shortages of specific medicine? Will there be higher prices for the patients? That is something that could happen if the companies don't react and build more plasma facilities also in other parts of the country or also abroad.

RASCOE: So I guess, with all of that said, what are you hearing from all of the different stakeholders involved in this?

DODT: What I'm hearing from the donors is, of course, they're angry. They say this is money they very much need. At the same time, I hear a lot of donors saying, well, finally, there will be some clarification and we will understand if what we're doing is something illegal or not. From the donation centers across the border, I'm hearing they are basically out of business now. Lots of the centers cut hours, had to lay off most of their employees. And from the companies, of course, I'm hearing that they hope they will have success before court. And they, of course, are stressing now this is basically precipitating a health crisis.

RASCOE: Reporter Stefanie Dodt, thank you so very much.

DODT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.