The Bloodworks Northwest president objects to a federal move to recommend Zika screening of all donations in the U.S. In Washington, the mosquitoes that spread Zika haven’t been found.
A Food and Drug Administration recommendation that all U.S. blood centers begin screening for Zika virus drew sharp criticism Friday from a Seattle official who said it was a costly move aimed more at public relations than real protection from the mosquito-borne disease.
Dr. James AuBuchon, president and chief executive of Bloodworks Northwest, said his agency would be forced to spend $2.5 million on the tests in the coming year — in a region where the mosquitoes that spread Zika haven’t been found.
“It’s an extraordinary misuse of very limited resources,” said AuBuchon, who heads the organization that collects and distributes blood for nearly 90 hospitals in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
AuBuchon said he and other local blood-collection officials weren’t consulted or warned before the FDA announced new guidancefor all U.S. states and territories to begin testing blood donations within 12 weeks.
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Previously, only Puerto Rico and two counties in Florida had been testing.
“With Zika in Washington and Oregon, we know there is no possibility of local transmission,” AuBuchon said. “Those mosquitoes don’t live here.”
Zika is spread primarily by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which aren’t found in the Northwest. It also can be spread through sexual transmission by people infected with the virus elsewhere. Bloodworks has been screening and deferring travelers to areas with Zika for months.
But FDA officials said previous recommendations to defer blood donors who had traveled or lived in such areas were “no longer adequate” to ensure the safety of the nation’s blood supply.
“It’s at a point that it does affect the local blood-donor population,” said Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics, Evaluation and Research.
The FDA has authorized two screening tests, one made by Roche and another from Hologic Inc. and Grifoils.
More than 2,000 travelers in the continental U.S. have tested positive for Zika virus, and more than 9,000 cases have been detected in U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Washington, 28 travelers have been confirmed to be infected.
In Florida, the virus has been spread by local mosquitoes, infecting more than 40 people.
Last month, Florida and Miami halted donations until they could screen individual units of blood. Puerto Rico suspended blood donations and imported products — including blood from Washington — until it started screening its own donations.
Marks said it’s important to ensure that Zika-tainted blood isn’t transfused to pregnant women or their sexual partners. The virus causes only mild illness in most people, but scientists say it can cause severe birth defects when spread through mosquitoes or sexual transmission.
Under the new guidance, 11 states must begin testing donor blood within four weeks. They include Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina and Texas.
About 6.8 million bloood donors provide nearly 14 million unites of whole blood and red blood cells in the U.S. each year, according to the American Red Cross.
AuBuchon said he recognizes the need to protect the blood supply, including the 225,000 units donated locally each year. But he said a uniform policy to test all donations across the nation is “misguided.”
He particularly objects to the recommendation that each donation be tested individually for Zika.
Blood centers routinely screen donations for HIV, hepatitis, West Nile virus and other blood-borne viruses. But they usually test small “pools,” six samples or so, to reduce cost and time. If a sample in the pool tests positive, the donations are screened individually, AuBuchon said.
Blood-industry experts favored testing donations in fewer states with a higher chance of local transmission and relying on deferrals for travel exposure and sexual transmission in the remaining states, said Dr. Louis Katz, medical director of America’s Blood Centers, a group that includes more than 600 local centers.
“It’s problematic, but at the end of the day guidance from the FDA is guidance and we will bust our butts to implement it,” Katz said.
Bloodworks will begin testing donations for Zika immediately, even before the 12-week window the FDA set for compliance, AuBuchon said.
But at a time when local blood donations have been at a critical low and Bloodworks has been turning away travelers to countries where Zika is spreading, the new testing recommendation is an additional effort and expense.
“It’s more for psychological benefit,” AuBuchon said.