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Virus survivors rake in cash for plasma on Iraq’s black market

Recovered coronavirus patients in Iraq are selling their blood plasma for $2,000 per liter on the black market as health leaders watch in dismay.
An Iraqi phlebotomist holds a bag of plasma donated by a recovered COVID-19 patient at the blood bank of Iraq's southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province, on June 24, 2020. (Photo by Asaad NIAZI / AFP) (Photo by ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images)

For five days, Qusay al-Zaidi searched for a recovered coronavirus patient to give him plasma for use in the treatment of his relatives who had contracted the virus. He expected to get it from a volunteer free of charge, but this was not the case.

“The recovered patient asked for $1,500 per liter and refused to negotiate the price,” he told Al-Monitor.

Zaidi had no choice but to buy the plasma, but perhaps too late. His relative died on July 8 in Baghdad.

The Blood plasma trade in the Iraqi black market has flourished in recent weeks, with the daily number of confirmed COVID-19 cases exceeding 2,000 per day. Hospitals are packed with patients and other facilities have been turned into quarantine centers.

Member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights Ali al-Bayati told Al-Monitor, “Many are exploiting the need for blood plasma amid a lack of planning by the Ministry of Health. Poverty and desperation have pushed many coronavirus patients to sell their antibody-rich plasma.”

Families of coronavirus patients in Iraq search for volunteers from among those who had caught the virus and survived. Their blood plasma may save the lives of their infected relatives. But as the crisis lingers, people are refusing to donate their plasma.

"There is a black market for blood plasma. Some are trading it and exploiting people's suffering. Traffickers and midddle men are encouraging recovered patients to sell their plasma," parliament member Rizan Al-Sheikh told Al-Monitor. She added, “There is almost no supervision by the Ministry of Health, which has allowed the plasma black market to thrive. The ministry should regulate the transfer of plasma from the recovered patients to those who need it."

With the increasing demand, the price of a liter of plasma stands at around $2,000. The precious commodity is being advertised for sale over social media. Closed Facebook groups list the phone numbers and addresses of people selling plasma after their recovery from COVID-19 as well as volunteers willing to donate it.

In a July 3 press statement, Dr. Hamed Al-Saadi, a physician at the Iraqi National Blood Transfusion Center, warned against the blood plasma trade and said the Ministry of Health is taking measures to stop it. He called the sale of blood plasma morally and scientifically unacceptable and warned that the black market offers no guarantee that the plasma is free of HIV and other viruses.

Iraq's law on human organ transplants does not forbid selling blood, but does provide for penalizing those who can donate but refuse to do so as “any person who, without justification, refrains from or hesitates in giving assistance to a victim of a disaster or offense.”

Dr. Falah al-Saadi, an embryologist who has worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross, believes blood plasma may be helpful, but only for a period. He explained to Al-monitor, “This high demand for the blood plasma of recovered patients is futile.”

On June 15 Hassan Karim Al-Kaabi, the first deputy speaker of the Iraq Parliament, himself recovering from the virus, urged Iraqis to donate plasma. “This is a legitimate and humanitarian responsibility that contributes to saving lives,” he said. 

Of note, some recovered patients do prefer to donate their plasma to those battling COVID-19. On the "Al-Mohamma" call-in show, the host asked a recovered patient to sell him his plasma, saying he prefers to donate it.

A staff member at Baghdad Medical City, a sprawling medical complex where coronavirus patients are being treated, spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “There are patients who bought plasma at prices ranging from $1,500 to $2,000 and they were cured,” he said. “Some middle men are advertising plasma in quarantine centers and on social media. They even give out their phone numbers. They are dealing with this humanitarian crisis as a lucrative business.”

The Iraqi Scholars Jurisprudential Council issued a fatwa calling on recovered patients to donate their plasma, saying it's their duty to save the lives of others.

Subpar medical services provided in Iraqi hospitals and health institutions seem to be pushing patients, whether they can afford it or not, to buy blood plasma at any cost, as faster recovery could spare them time suffering at overcrowded quarantine centers.

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