Take Action Now: Gay and bisexual men are unfairly banned from donating plasma for experimental COVID-19 treatment

Today, GLAAD criticized the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as its guidelines that prevent gay and bisexual men, as well as others in the LGBTQ community, from donating blood during the COVID-19 crisis also apply to plasma donations. GLAAD launched a petition earlier this month calling for an end to the current ban on blood donations following a call for blood donations from the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. The petition is approaching 20,000 signatures.

GLAAD confirmed that the current FDA deferral which disallows gay and bisexual men from donating blood, also bans gay and bisexual men who have recovered from COVID-19 from donating plasma. 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 12-month deferral policy for blood donations from men who have sex with men also applies to plasma donations. The FDA’s guidelines for plasma collection also state that “COVID-19 convalescent plasma must only be collected from recovered individuals if they are eligible to donate blood.” GLAAD also reached out to the FDA for comment but has yet to hear back.

As it currently stands, the FDA enforces that men who have sex with men cannot donate blood unless they have abstained from sex for 12 months. This policy also affects other members of the LGBTQ population, as well as women who have sex with men who have sex with men.

Last week, the FDA cleared the way to begin utilizing blood plasma - the yellow fluid in which blood cells are suspended - from recovered COVID-19 patients as an experimental treatment for the novel coronavirus. 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. Over the weekend, Houston Medical was the first hospital to try out this potential treatment on a patient.

“The FDA cannot let an outdated and discriminatory ban on blood donations from gay and bi men get in the way of potentially life-saving treatment for the country’s painful current health crisis,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “Gay and bi men who have recovered from COVID-19 and want to donate plasma, or who want to help contribute to a nationwide shortage of blood, are banned from doing so as a result of the FDA. Continuing to enforce this antiquated policy is dangerous, irresponsible, and flies in the face of recommendations from medical experts.”

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.” Years ago, the American Medical Association said, “the lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science.” 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.

Last week, GLAAD launched a petition urging the FDA to lift the ban, which has now garnered over 17,000 signatures. Sam Smith (via IG story), 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 spoken out have helped to share GLAAD’s petition on social media.

View the petition here.

Following the launch of the petition, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin led a group of Senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker 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.

In the letter, the Senators wrote: “We write to express our concern with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) discriminatory blood donor deferral policy for men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly in the midst of a nationwide shortage of donated blood and blood products spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must take every possible step to secure our nation’s blood supply in this critical time, and in order to do so, we need to shift away from antiquated and stigmatizing donation policies to ones that are scientifically sound, based on individual risk, and inclusive of all potential healthy blood donors.”

The Senators conclude, “In light of this shortage, we urge you to swiftly update blood donor deferral policies in favor of ones that are grounded in science, are based on individual risk factors, do not unfairly single out one group of individuals, and allow all healthy Americans to donate. We strongly encourage you to consider this critical solution as you work to develop a comprehensive response to the COVID-19 outbreak and ensure that Americans have access to life-saving blood transfusions.”

Read the full letter here.

In a statement to the Washington Blade last week, a spokesperson from the FDA stated: “At this time, FDA’s recommendations regarding blood donor deferral for men who have sex with men have not changed, but we will continue to reevaluate the situation as the outbreak progresses.”

The spokesperson continued, “FDA is aware there has been a dramatic reduction in blood and plasma donations around the country. The agency is working with the blood banking and source plasma industries to encourage healthy people who wish to help to donate blood. People who donate blood are like those people working in a critical infrastructure industry.”