GLAAD calls out FDA for "working to commence a pilot study" to end ban on blood and plasma from gay and bi men

Today, GLAAD responded after Good Morning America reported that the FDA responded to public calls to lift the ban on gay and bisexual men, and other LGBTQ people, from donating blood. GLAAD has been leading a campaign to urge the FDA to lift these restrictions, with its petition calling for an end to the current blood ban approaching 25,000 signatures.

This morning, Good Morning America ran an in-depth piece about Lukus Estok, a young gay man who had recovered from COVID-19, but was turned away from donating his plasma at the New York Blood Center because he is gay. In a new statement to Good Morning America, a FDA spokesperson stated that “the FDA is committed to considering alternatives to the time-based deferral for men who have sex with men by generating the scientific evidence that will support an effective individual risk assessment-based blood donor questionnaire.” The FDA also revealed to Good Morning America that it is “working to commence a pilot study that will enroll about 2000 men who have sex with men and who would be willing to donate blood.”

“The FDA is placing American lives on the line as they debate stigma, not science. During the current crisis, the FDA is wasting time and money on a pilot study when all the scientific research and medical authorities plainly state that gay and bi man should not be restricted from donating blood,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “All blood donations, regardless of sexual orientation, are screened to ensure healthy samples and now the American Medical Association, leading elected officials, and more than 600 medical professionals have all done the work for the FDA and unequivocally state that this ban needs to end.”

On his Thursday evening broadcast of Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen revealed he was denied from giving plasma after surviving COVID-19. He called out the FDA’s restrictions for being based on “stigma rather than science,” which is ultimately impeding on the urgent need for blood donations from Americans, as well as plasma donations from COVID-19 survivors.

Watch Andy Cohen’s impassioned speech below:

GLAAD thanked Andy on Twitter for speaking out against the ban: 

Earlier this week, attorney generals from 19 states and D.C. issued a letter to the Assistant Health Secretary, requesting that the FDA further loosen its ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

On April 16, GLAAD also released an open letter penned by over 500 medical professionals calling on to the FDA “to reverse its unscientific and discriminatory ban against men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood in favor of risk-based screening.” The letter also notes that “the FDA’s recent decision to shorten the prohibition window to 3 months is a step in the right direction, [but] it does not go far enough in reversing the unscientific ban.”

On April 2nd, the FDA announced it revised its deferral time blood donations from gay and bisexual men from 12 months to 3 months. After the FDA’s revision, the American Medical Association called on the FDA to update its guidelines to be more in line with science: “We urge the FDA to take future steps to remove the categorical restrictions for blood donations by MSM so they are instead based on a person’s individual risk, consistent with the latest scientific evidence, to ensure blood donation criteria is equitably applied across all people."

GLAAD launched a petition in March calling for an end to the current ban following U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams’ urgent call for donations during the COVID-19 crisis. The petition has over 23,000 signatures and elected officials including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Kamala Harris have spoken out. Sam Smith (via IG story), Chasten Buttigieg, Michelle Visage (RuPaul’s Drag Race), Daniel Franzese (Mean Girls), Peppermint (RuPaul’s Drag Race), Margaret Cho, Nico Tortorella (Younger), Josh Feldman (This Close), and Johnny Sibilly (Pose) have also helped to share GLAAD’s petition on social media.

View the petition here: www.glaad.org/blood.

In an April 2 email, the FDA stated: “Based on our evaluation of the totality of the scientific evidence available, we are revising the 2015 recommendations for reducing the risk of HIV transmission by blood products including: For male donors who would have been deferred for having sex with another man; the agency is changing the recommended deferral period from 12 months to 3 months.” This change will also apply to female donors who would have been deferred for having sex with a man who had sex with another man.

The FDA also wrote: “To help address this critical need and increase the number of donations, the FDA is announcing today that based on recently completed studies and epidemiologic data, we have concluded that the current policies regarding the eligibility of certain donors can be modified without compromising the safety of the blood supply.  The policy changes that we are announcing for immediate implementation are set out in three guidance documents and are expected to remain in place after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends.”

GLAAD President and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis: “The FDA’s decision to lower the deferral period on men who have sex with men from 12 months to 3 months is a step towards being more in line with science, but remains imperfect. We will keep fighting until the deferral period is lifted and gay and bi men, and all LGBTQ people, are treated equal to others.“

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney previously penned a letter calling on the FDA to revise its ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood. The letter reads, in part: “This antiquated policy is not based on current science, stigmatizes the LGBTQIA+ community, and undermines crucial efforts to increase the nation’s blood supply as the United States grapples with the coronavirus crisis." The letter also states: “In light of the potential long-term impacts the coronavirus outbreak may have on the nation’s blood supply, we urge FDA to act swiftly in revising its policy so every person who can safely donate blood in the United States has the opportunity to do so.” Read the full letter here.

Following the launch of GLAAD’s petition, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin led a group of Senators, including Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and more, in releasing a letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn that raises concerns about the FDA’s discriminatory blood donation policies and urges the administration to make the necessary changes to help save lives. Read the full letter here.

GLAAD contacted BioLife Plasma Services, an industry leader in the collection of high-quality plasma, and a spokesperson confirmed to GLAAD that the FDA’s deferral policy for blood donations from men who have sex with men also applies to plasma donations. Previously, the FDA issued guidelines stating that only people eligible to donate blood are eligible to donate plasma, noting: “COVID-19 convalescent plasma must only be collected from recovered individuals if they are eligible to donate blood.” According to The Atlantic, “the idea of using plasma from survivors, also known as convalescent-plasma therapy, dates back to the late 19th century” and is now being explored as a potential way to treat ill COVID-19 patients.

Leading medical organizations have debunked the ban on blood donations for years. The American Public Health Association has stated that the current ban “is not based in science but appears to be modeled after other countries’ choices and fears.” The American Red Cross has also spoken out, noting that “blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation.” A 2014 study by the Williams Institute estimated that if the ban were to be lifted, an additional 360,000 men would likely donate, which could help save the lives of more than a million people.