FDA Revises Blood Donation Restrictions for Gay and Bi Men Amid COVID-19

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday April 2, 2020

The FDA will now permit gay and bi men who have abstained from same-sex sexual activity for 90 days to donate blood... no matter that modern testing techniques can check blood for HIV less than a week after potential exposure to the virus.

Those same guidelines prevent gay men from donating their blood plasma after having come down with, and then recovered from, COVID-19. While the disease is deadlier than the seasonal flu and can make some people ill enough to require artificial respiratory support, many people who contract the virus recover with only moderate symptoms. Theoretically, people who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies to the disease in their blood, the result of their own immune response to the virus.

Though such antibodies could prove key in treating severely ill patients with COVID-19, those same blood donation guidelines mean that gay and bi men interested in helping out during the pandemic by donating plasma will still need abstain from same-sex activity for 90 days according to NBC news.

NBC previously reported the story of a gay New Yorker, Sabri Ben-Achour, who is HIV-negative and takes Truvada in order to shield himself from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

After Ben-Achour got better from a bout with COVID-19, he read about a study by Mt. Sinai Hospital looking into the medical use of antibody-containing blood plasma from people who had recovered from the illness. At first, things went fine - but then Ben-Achour was informed that his donation was not welcome after all, both because he was taking Truvada and also because he would need to remain celibate for a full year in order to qualify as a donor of any blood product.

Those guidelines have come in for criticism many times over the years, but even as they exist today they are an improvement over what was, for decades, a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.

The existing guidelines, critics pointed out, do not apply to heterosexual men who might very well have interacted with female sexual partners who have HIV. Indeed, the ban's inclusion of married gay men, with its implicit assumption that gay men are incapable of sexual exclusivity, seems to ignore the fact that even married heterosexual men have affairs and visit prostitutes — none of which erects a barrier to their giving blood.

The one-year ban had come under increasing criticism of late. NBC News noted that:

Just last week, a group of 15 senators called upon the Food and Drug Administration to replace the restrictions with regulations that are "scientifically sound, based on individual risk, and inclusive of all potential healthy blood donors."

Surgeon General Jerome Adams told reporters, "These changes are based on the best science that we have today regarding the time that it takes to test positive for HIV," saying the updated guidance would encourage more people "to do the right thing: donate blood."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.