by Jordan Chan
A shortage of blood during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has prompted people to reexamine blood donation policies in the United States that exclude gay and bisexual men from donating.
COVID-19 canceled thousands of blood drives across the nation, and social distancing guidelines discourage donors and volunteers from going to a blood donation center. Doctors have been treating patients using blood plasma donations with antibodies for the coronavirus, and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stressed the need to maintain our nation’s blood supply.
“Maintaining an adequate blood supply is vital to public health. The American Red Cross estimates that every two seconds, someone in the US needs blood,” the FDA stated.
On Apr. 2, the FDA released updated blood donation guidelines that addressed the need for blood during the outbreak. The deferral period in which male donors must abstain from sex with another male was shortened from 12 months to three. The same change was made to the deferral period in which female donors must abstain from sex with males who have had sex with another male.
This was not the first time the FDA changed blood donation policies. In 1983, the FDA enacted a lifetime blood donation ban against men who have sex with men (MSM) due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The FDA voiced their concerns in defense of the policy, arguing that testing could not detect every infected donor or protect against the transmission of infectious diseases by transfusions. In 2015, a 12 month deferral period in which male donors must abstain from sex with other males replaced the lifetime ban.
Now, advances in technology and blood testing have prompted questions about whether policies that prevent MSM donating blood should exist in the first place. The FDA screens donated blood and tests donors accurately. Doctors will not administer blood that tests positive for HIV or other infectious diseases to a patient.
TV show host Andy Cohen spoke about how after recovering from coronavirus, his sexual orientation prevented him from donating plasma containing coronavirus antibodies. “Why are members of my community being excluded from helping out when so many people are sick and dying? Maybe because we’re valuing stigma over science?” he remarked.
Cohen is not the only one advocating for change. On Mar. 26, in a letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, a group of US senators including Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay candidate elected to the senate, and Elizabeth Warren stated the following: “We are steadfastly committed to ending this policy and encourage the FDA to shift to scientific practices that secure our nation’s blood supply based on individual risk rather than the perpetuation of inaccurate stereotypes.”
(Sources: New York Times, Red Cross, FDA, The Science Times, USA Today)