May 30, 2024


On a former slave owner’s cotton plantation in Arkansas, the sprawling Cummins State Penitentiary covers 6,700 acres (16,500 hectares) and can house nearly 1,900 inmates.

It is a working farm with vegetable crops, a dairy and livestock, but for more than two decades its most profitable product has been the blood plasma harvested from the prisoners.

Prisoners were paid between $5 and $7 each time, and the plasma was sold for about $100 in the drug industry’s supply chain from the early 1960s to the early 1980s.

Cummins was one in a network of prisons across America that provided plasma and its extracts in products shipped around the world, including Britain. Other paid donors were recruited from deprived neighborhoods of the US, including drug addicts and people with sexually transmitted diseases.

Cara McGoogan, author of The Poison Line: A True Story of Death, Deception and Contaminated Blood, said: “The plasma was so profitable that it was called liquid gold. From prisons in America to the UK, mistakes were made along the entire chain that created this deadly product.”

Shocking accounts have been uncovered of the “bloomers” who donated at Cummins. It was claimed there were no sinks in the bleeding area, no clinical scrubs or gloves. The bleeding rooms were dirty with blood on the floor. It is alleged that the screening procedures were routinely disregarded.

At another prison in Louisiana, there were even more horrific demands. One witness claimed they saw people “shooting intravenous drugs” while waiting to donate, while others allegedly had sex in the bathroom before “going on the table to bleed”.

Coagulants extracted from the plasma have been used to treat people in Britain suffering from hemophilia, a medical condition in which the blood’s ability to clot is severely reduced.

Guards patrol a cell block at the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction near Varner in 2009. Photo: Danny Johnston/AP

Typically, around 10,000 donors would have contributed to a product group, from inmates in a chain of prisons in the American South to homeless people in Los Angeles. Just one person infected with HIV or hepatitis C can contaminate the entire product.

The investigation into contaminated blood in London, which opened in 2018 and heard from 370 witnesses and examined tens of thousands of documents, will report next month on the worst treatment scandal in the history of the NHS. More than 3,000 people died from the dirty blood contaminated with HIV and hepatitis viruses.

For years, ministers insisted that patients received the “best available treatment” at the time. They claimed clinicians and health officials lacked the knowledge to prevent the tragedy.

The Observer have seen documents submitted the investigation which destroys this claim, revealing British officials were told in the 1970s that blood plasma was obtained from convicts and could not be properly checked.

One of the products was Koate, manufactured by Cutter Laboratories, which is owned by a drug firm Bayer. Cutter Laboratories has been a key customer of the plasma traded by Cummins Prison since the 1960s.

Drug managers were open about the risks in their application for a license in October 1975 from the British regulators. It said: “Since the presence or absence of hepatitis virus in Koate cannot be proven with absolute certainty, the presence of a virus must be assumed.”

Koate Bayer-owned Cutter Laboratories, maker of commercial blood product Koate, has warned of the presence of hepatitis virus.
‘must be accepted’.

Officials on the UK’s Committee on Safety of Medicines were also told that the “raw material” was obtained from various sources, including “American State Prisons”.

Officials must have realized that paid prisoners were more likely to be drug users and at risk of infection, but the license was revoked by the then Department of Health and Social Security.

“It is appalling that the government knew these products were contaminated and that the donors included prisoners, but allowed them to be licensed without people being given informed consent,” said Jason Evans, founder of the Factor 8 campaign group, whose father Jonathan died in October 1993 after contracting HIV and hepatitis C from contaminated blood. “The license documents are critical because they show the level of knowledge in the government.”

Hemophilia is an inherited bleeding disorder caused by low levels of clotting proteins known as factor VIII (the most common deficiency associated with hemophilia A) and factor IX. It is mainly a male disease.

For several years the condition was treated with intravenously administered fresh frozen plasma, but by the early 1970s manufacturers were able to extract the proteins from pooled plasma, producing a freeze-dried concentrate of powder for soluble injection.

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Jason Evans, founder of the Factor 8 campaign, whose father received contaminated blood and died as a result. Photo: Cathy Gordon/PA

Commercial protein products were considered a “miracle” treatment, but blood plasma was in short supply. The World Health Organization has urged countries to become self-sufficient in blood supply and avoid paid donors because of the increased risk of contaminated blood. Dr. Joseph Garrott Allen, an American clinician, warned the UK’s Blood Products Laboratory in January 1975 that the US supply chain with paid donors was “extremely dangerous”.

Despite the warning, the UK began licensing commercial factor VIII products from the early 1970s. The contaminated product led to outbreaks of hepatitis B in hemophiliacs in the 1970s, but clinicians considered that the benefits of treatment outweighed the risk.

In January 1983 the Observer reported that the products could be a conduit for a much more deadly virus: HIV. “A commercial blood product imported into Britain from the United States may pose a serious threat to the health of hemophiliacs,” the paper reported.

Four months later the Post on Sunday warned in a front page article of “hospitals using murderous blood”, and rightly warned that the lives of thousands of British people could be at risk.

Cutter Laboratories began screening its donors for AIDS risk in February 1983, but in the UK ministers, clinicians and health officials insisted there was no conclusive evidence of risk and failed to stop treatments .

In November 1983, Kenneth Clarke, then a health minister, told parliament there was no “conclusive evidence”. that AIDS was transmitted through blood products. The contaminated products were only phased out in 1985, when heat-treated products were introduced.

Over the years, as the scale of the disaster emerged, ministers were accused of compounding the tragedy by failing to acknowledge the failures. Campaigners say the destruction of documents and misleading statements amounted to a cover-up. Documents also show experimented on children with hemophilia by doctors with treatments that can infect them with HIV.

The Infected Blood Inquiry, chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff, investigated how 30,000 people were infected with HIV and hepatitis C. Patients were infected by commercial blood products for hemophilia and blood transfusions that were not routinely screened for hepatitis C before September 1991. genetic sequence of hepatitis C, formerly known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis, was isolated in 1989.

An interim report published in July 2022 recommended interim recommendations compensation payments of not less than £100,000 must be paid to all infected and all grieving partners. In a second interim report in April 2023, Langstaff found that “wrongdoing had been committed at individual, collective and systemic levels”.

The government says it has paid more than £400 million in interim compensation, but that it is not in a position to make a final decision on further payouts until it has seen the report.

Bayer said it cooperated fully with the investigation into contaminated blood. The firm said in a statement: “Bayer expresses its deepest sympathy for people who contracted HIV or hepatitis infection through the use of blood therapies in the 1970s and 1980s and for the family members of those infected.

“Bayer is truly sorry that this tragic situation has occurred and that therapies developed by Bayer Group companies and prescribed by doctors to save and improve lives have in fact caused so much suffering.”



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