The Evolution of the Safety of Plasma Products from Pathogen Transmission—A Continuing Narrative

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Chronic recipients of plasma products are at risk of infection from blood-borne pathogens as a result of their inevitable exposure to agents which will contaminate a plasma manufacturing pool made up of thousands of individual donations. The generation of such a pool is an essential part of the large-scale manufacture of these products and is required for good manufacturing practice (GMP). Early observations of the transmission of hepatitis by pooled plasma and serum led to the incorporation of heat treatment of the albumin solution produced by industrial Cohn fractionation of plasma. This led to an absence of pathogen transmission by albumin over decades, during which hepatitis continued to be transmitted by other early plasma fractions, as well as through mainstream blood transfusions. This risk was decreased greatly over the 1960s as an understanding of the epidemiology and viral aetiology of transfusion-transmitted hepatitis led to the exclusion of high-risk groups from the donor population and the development of a blood screening test for hepatitis B. Despite these measures, the first plasma concentrates to treat haemophilia transmitted hepatitis B and other, poorly understood, forms of parenterally transmitted hepatitis. These risks were considered to be acceptable given the life-saving nature of the haemophilia treatment products. The emergence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a transfusion-transmitted infection in the early 1980s shifted the focus of attention to this virus, which proved to be vulnerable to a number of inactivation methods introduced during manufacture. Further developments in the field obviated the risk of hepatitis C virus (HCV) which had also infected chronic recipients of plasma products, including haemophilia patients and immunodeficient patients receiving immunoglobulin. The convergence of appropriate donor selection driven by knowledge of viral epidemiology, the development of blood screening now based on molecular diagnostics, and the incorporation of viral inactivation techniques in the manufacturing process are now recognised as constituting a “safety tripod” of measures contributing to safety from pathogen transmission. Of these three components, viral inactivation during manufacture is the major contributor and has proven to be the bulwark securing the safety of plasma derivatives over the past thirty years. Concurrently, the safety of banked blood and components continues to depend on donor selection and screening, in the absence of universally adopted pathogen reduction technology. This has resulted in an inversion in the relative safety of the products of blood banking compared to plasma products. Overall, the experience gained in the past decades has resulted in an absence of pathogen transmission from the current generation of plasma derivatives, but maintaining vigilance, and the surveillance of the emergence of infectious agents, is vital to ensure the continued efficacy of the measures in place and the development of further interventions aimed at obviating safety threats.

Original languageEnglish
Article number318
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023

Cite this