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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Customs Blocks Export of Blood and Tissue

The Federal Customs Service has halted the export of blood samples and other biological materials, a decision experts say will put the lives of hundreds of sick people at risk.

The agency has told courier services DHL and TNT Express that they can no longer send medical examples abroad, the companies said Wednesday.

Biological samples, usually blood or plasma, are often sent abroad to help patients find bone marrow donors. They are also used for research purposes in clinical drug trials.

Because there is no database for bone marrow transplants in Russia, for example, a bone marrow cancer patient must send samples abroad to find a match for a transplant.

The purpose of the ban was unclear, though one report linked it to bioterrorism fears.

Customs officials refused to allow the biological samples to pass Monday at Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo airports, Yury Pavlyuk, director of marketing and sales for TNT Express in Russia, said in a statement.

The inspectors cited a verbal internal ruling from senior customs officials, Pavlyuk said. "We did not see any written order," he said.

TNT transports more than 100 biological specimens a day for pharmaceutical companies conducting clinical trials in Russia and for patients in need of analysis at foreign clinics.

Mark Jordan, the commercial director of DHL, confirmed that the company had received a directive from customs officials but refused to specify its contents or when it was received.

The agency refused to comment Wednesday, and it remained unclear whether the ban was permanent.

The Health and Social Development Ministry, meanwhile, said the new rules referred only to exports in large quantities.

"The system for the export of biological materials for sick individuals remains unchanged," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry's press service admitted that it knew nothing about the new decree until Kommersant broke the story about it Wednesday. It did not specify whether the ministry had actually seen the decree.

Federal Customs Service chief Andrei Belyaninov told Kommersant that all biological specimens had been banned from export.

Alexei Mashtan, head of the hematology department at the Russian Institute for Pediatric Hematology in Moscow, said he was unaware of the order.

"But if we do not send the blood of our patients -- children with leukemia -- to Germany, where we choose bone marrow donors, then the transplant program will not work," Mashtan said.

Some 1,500 children are in need of bone marrow transplants in Russia, Mashtan said. There are around 60 such transplants annually.

Some tightening of regulations is needed, said George Mentkevich, head of the department of bone marrow transplants at the Institute for Pediatric Oncology Research.

"No one can say what is being sent abroad in a freezer because it is forbidden to open it," Mentkevich said. He added, however, that Russian scientists work with foreign scientists in researching various diseases, for which the transport of biological samples is essential.

The ban followed a report from the Federal Security Service to President Vladimir Putin earlier this month that said there was a danger of bioterrorism in Russia and that foreign pharmaceutical companies and health agencies were trying to harm Russians with their tests, Kommersant reported.

Mentkevich called the idea "paranoia."

"No foreign institution is able to destroy Russian's health more effectively than [Health and Social Development Minister] Mikhail Zurabov," Mentkevich said.

Customs regulations have changed a number of times in recent years but usually revert to the old ways after a certain time, said Dmitry Dmitriyev, head of Pharmanax, which conducts clinical trials in Russia for several major pharmaceutical companies.

If the ban stays, though, it would seriously damage the clinical trials industry in Russia, Dmitriyev said. Kommersant estimated the industry to be worth $100 million to $150 million annually.

Mashtan said countermeasures would have to be taken if the ban stays in place.

"If they do not allow analyses to be sent by post, then we will have to stick them in our pockets, because we have to do the operation," he said.