The Baltimore area's Greater Chesapeake and Potomac Blood Region -- the third-largest blood center in the national Red Cross system -- may become one of the testing sites that will help protect the blood supply from the AIDS virus and other threats.
"We have a brand new state-of-the-art laboratory and since we are the third-largest of the nation's 53 blood centers, it is highly likely that we will be one of those chosen," says Dr. Paul Ness, executive director of the region.
In addition, Ness said yesterday, the region also has maintained "a very good record" with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on inspections regarding improper releases of blood. He also is the blood bank director at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The Red Cross center, on Mount Hope Drive in the Seton Business Park in northwest Baltimore, serves most of Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, and parts of Pennsylvania.
Traditionally, each of the 53 blood centers in the Red Cross network routinely test ed all donated blood for AIDS, hepatitis, syphilis and a still-growing list of infectious diseases.
Under a new plan that "will revolutionize blood banking," according to Red Cross President Elizabeth H. Dole, blood-testing will be transferred from the 53 centers to less than 10 regional laboratories.
Dole called the plan, which she announced yesterday in San Diego, "a complete transformation of the Red Cross blood program to address the problem of AIDS in the blood supply."
The consolidation of testing sites and the installation of a single computer network that will replace 10 different networks that run NTC through the Red Cross system are key changes in the plan, which will cost $120 million and take more than two years to implement.
Dole described the program as "perhaps the most ambitious project the Red Cross has ever undertaken" and one that will involve "the total transformation of how we collect, process and deliver one-half of the nation's blood supply."
Ness, reached in San Diego, where he is attending the American Red Cross convention, which ends today, said, "There are a lot of reasons why this plan will make Red Cross blood services better.
"Having each region deal with a set of standard operating procedures and having state-of-the-art testing centers for the nation's blood supply will make all these processes more foolproof and should do a lot to relieve the anxiety of the public about AIDS in the blood supply," he said.
However, Ness stressed that despite releases from a committee headed by Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and stories that link acquired immune deficiency syndrome to the blood supply, "the blood supply is safer than it's ever been -- right now -- based on the testing and the procedures that are in place."
Six years ago, when Ness started out in Baltimore with the blood bank at Hopkins and the Chesapeake region, two tests were being done on every unit of blood. Now, because of the spread of AIDS and hepatitis, seven tests are done on each unit of blood, he said.
Next year, in Baltimore alone, slightly more than 2 million tests are expected to be done.
The Red Cross will close its 53 centers in rotation next year as it begins to put in place the sweeping changes. As many as eight centers may be closed at a time and for as long as eight weeks.
Ness said he thinks centers that have run into problems with the FDA will be among the first to be shut down, adding that no one has as yet been informed about how the closings will be scheduled.
The new program comes in response to concerns during recent years of serious management problems in the regional blood centers.
The director of the Portland, Ore., center was placed on working probation in April following the release of an FDA report critical of the center's operation.
Copies of an FDA inspection form have shown the Portland center had inadvertently released one pint of blood that had initially tested positive for the AIDS virus and two pints that tested positive for hepatitis B.
Red Cross officials say the FDA misinterpreted the center's records and say no contaminated blood was released to hospitals.
The FDA also found the Red Cross had inadvertently released blood contaminated by hepatitis, failed to follow safety procedures that guard against the use of AIDS-contaminated blood and repeatedly neglected to report errors to the agency.
The FDA will monitor implementation of the new program, which was developed in consultation with Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan and Dingell, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee.