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Coronavirus in Pakistan: Blood plasma in high demand to cure COVID-19 patients

The public healthcare system in Pakistan is on the brink of collapse as health authorities struggle to cope with an increasing number of coronavirus cases. S. Khan reports from Islamabad.

As of July 1, Pakistan has recorded over 215,000 coronavirus cases and almost 4,500 related deaths. Health experts say the drastic surge in infections has overburdened the country's public healthcare system.

"This is an alarming situation. An increased testing will likely see the reported numbers increase to millions. I fear the pandemic is also becoming more lethal in Pakistan," Khizar Hayat, chairman of the Young Doctors Association (YDA), told DW.

Amid this chaotic situation, the blood plasma of recovered patients is being sold in black market to people who are desparate to find a cure for the disease.

Health experts say that convalescent plasma, which contains antibodies generated by the recovered patients, could be a possible treatment for COVID-19.

Financial hardship

WhatsApp messages between people across the country reveal that sellers and buyers are openly negotiating blood plasma prices.

Kashif Naseer, a resident of Lahore city, told DW that his uncle received blood plasma for his coronavirus treatment. "A member of our extended family donated blood plasma to him. But when I was at hospital taking care of my uncle, I came to know that it was also being sold in a market," Naseer said, adding that many poor people who recovered from coronavirus  were willing to sell blood plasma to intermediaries to overcome financial hardship.

Read more: Child laborers caught between coronavirus and economic hardship

Experts say it has turned into a lucrative busniess for those who see a money-making opportunity in the crisis.

"My financial condition forced me to consider selling my blood plasma. I have been unemployed for more than three months now and have spent all my savings on coronavirus treatment. Now I want to sell blood plasma for at least 300,000 rupees (€1,584, $1,783) so that I can buy a cab on installments," a Karachi resident told DW on condition of anonymity.

The government has advised people not to be "exploited by paying money in purchasing plasma from different blood banks/hospitals."

"Public and physicians are advised to keep themselves informed about the clinical guidance on judicious use of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients in the current pandemic that will be issued by the Ministry of Health from time to time,” it said in a statement.

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'Extraordinary situation'

Abdul Ghafoor Shoro of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) expressed concern over the reports of illegal blood plasma sale.

"In Pakistan, people sell their kidneys and other body organs even during 'normal circumstances.' The COVID-19 situation is extraordinary," Shoro told DW.

Read more: How extreme poverty is forcing Pakistanis to sell kidneys

Shoro said the government needs to support people who have lost their livelihood due to the coronavirus crisis. "The authorities should announce a financial package for these people, otherwise poverty will drive more people to sell blood plasma," he added.

The government says it is setting up health centers where blood plasma can be donated professionally and legally.

"The government has designated five hospitals for this purpose in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar cities. Only these hospitals are allowed to collect blood plasma and use it according to professional guidelines," Abdur Rashid, chairman of the Clinical Study Committee of the Drugs Regulatory Authority of Pakistan, told DW.

"At least 351 COVID-19 patients have received blood plasma in these centers. The reports of these trials have yet to be submitted to the Health Ministry. Anyone donating or selling blood plasma elsewhere is committing an illegal act," he added.

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Coronavirus 'mismanagement'

The first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Pakistan on February 26, 2020. The country was put under a partial lockdown from April 1, which lasted until May 9.

In March, when coronavirus cases in Pakistan were low, the federal government allowed Shiite pilgrims from Iran to return to the country through Baluchistan province. The pilgrims were not properly quarantined, which resulted in a spike of infections. Also, the government allowed thousands of Sunni worshippers to go ahead with the "Tablighi Jamaat" congregation in Pubjab province.

Despite resistance from local provincial governments and opposition parties, Khan's government gave into pressure by trade unions and religious groups to lift coronavirus restrictions to celebrate the Eid festival on May 24. Khan said it was up to the public to take precautions. And when the public failed to do so, Khan said it was their own fault.

Currently, the federal government is trying to control the spread of the virus by imposing "smart" lockdowns in COVID-19 hotspots.

The WHO has recommended that Pakistan impose intermittent lockdowns lasting two weeks to contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, Pakistani opposition parties and doctors' associations are demanding a complete lockdown.

Read more: Coronavirus latest: WHO urges Pakistan to lock down

Many people in the country feel the country is heading toward an unmanageable health crisis due to bad governance.

"The onus is on the incumbent government and PM Khan. They don't know how to deal with this situation," Former Pakistani PM and opposition leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told DW.

Read more: Pakistan risking disaster with its contentious coronavirus strategy

Additional reporting by Aasim Saleem and Haroon Janjua.

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