An unlikely transpacific trade in human blood plasma products is flourishing between the US and China, where a spate of liver diseases has driven up demand for a protein contained within the vital fluid.
Chinese patients last year consumed about 300 tonnes of serum albumin — the main protein component in human plasma — roughly half of the global total, according to analysts. About 60 per cent of that was imported, and demand is growing at 15 per cent annually.
Naturally produced by the liver, the protein can be harvested by “fractionation” of donated plasma, the liquid part of human blood. Donors in the US are typically paid a fee.
However, a stigma attached to paid plasma collection in China following a string of scandals means that the country relies on imports, driving up sales for overseas exporters.
Prices in China have increased to Rmb430 ($64) for 10 grammes since a state-specified cap of Rmb378 was abolished in 2015, meaning the domestic market is worth about $1.9bn a year.
“One reason for the high Chinese consumption is that it’s a major country for liver disease,” said Zhang Tong, an analyst at brokerage China Merchant Securities. About 100m — or one in every 13 people in China — has some form of chronic hepatitis, according to the World Health Organization, putting them at high risk of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Widespread misconceptions about blood injections as an elixir of youth have also boosted Chinese demand. “Some Chinese people have an unscientific idea that human albumin is a nutritious product, and some wealthy or privileged consumers such as retired officials demand it,” said Xu Xianming, an administrator at a Shanghai hospital.
A reluctance by Chinese to donate blood was fuelled by a 1990s scandal that saw tens of thousands of farmers in Henan province — who had been paid to provide blood and plasma — contract HIV from unsanitary needles. The scandal was subsequently covered-up by officials.
China collected about 7,000 tonnes of plasma last year — less than a quarter of the 31,000 tonnes collected in the US. That has pushed up the price of domestic production, and Chinese albumin suppliers have been undercut by overseas rivals.
Australia’s CSL is the leading overseas producer with a 36 per cent share of China’s imports, according to China Merchants Securities, with Baxalta of the US and Grifols of Spain taking 32 per cent and 20 per cent shares respectively. All three companies have the majority of their plasma collection centres in the US.
CSL reported 35 per cent annual growth in Chinese albumin sales in 2016, and is targeting sales of $600m from the country this year. “Plasma product demand is growing faster than supply,” said Ben Yao, China general manager for CSL’s US subsidiary CSL Behring.
CSL last month bought an 80 per cent stake in Chinese plasma fractionator Wuhan Zhongyuan Ruide Biologics for $352m, giving it access to the fast-growing market for other plasma products such as the market for immunoglobulin, imports of which are currently not allowed by Beijing.
Mr Yao acknowledged the challenge of coaxing Chinese people to donate, but said prices for albumin would remain high, while immunoglobulin would see “some pricing upside”.
One factor that could bring down prices is a plan to bypass donation. Last month China’s top pharmaceutical administration threw its weight behind a $29m research programme to grow human serum albumin by transplanting it into rice seeds. The agency said initial trials had shown the method was “safe and effective”.