Study: $137M screening program to prevent Zika virus finds fewer than 12 infected donations

A screening program developed to prevent the Zika virus from reaching the Red Cross' blood supply, which costs around $137 million to operate annually, only detected eight units that tested positive for Zika between June 2016 and September 2017, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Of the eights units, half contained Zika antibodies as well as virus, suggesting they likely could not have infected a recipient during a blood transfusion.

The high cost of screening and low number of positive detections equals an estimated $5.3 million for each positive unit the Red Cross took from the system, according to the study. FDA policy currently requires blood suppliers to test each donation they receive individually, which accounts for the high cost.

Senior study author and vice president of scientific affairs at the American Red Cross Biomedical Services Susan Stramer, PhD, said testing blood donations in small pools rather than individually could cut Zika screening costs in half.

"For Zika, we treat that virus differently than we treat any other virus," Dr. Stramer told STAT. "So I think the argument we're trying to make is that Zika should be treated just like West Nile or HIV … etc., and not have to test each donation individually. Because it's certainly a waste of resources and a waste of our capacity, which we should be using that for other things."

The FDA said does not typically comment on individual studies, the agency said an emailed statement to STAT. Although the statement did not specify why the agency has not yet acted on its advisory panel's recommendation from December, the statement said the agency is considering a revision of the Zika screening guidelines.

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