Two gay celebrities who recently recovered from COVID-19 are calling out the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for prohibiting gay and bisexual males from donating blood plasma if they’ve had sex in the past three months.
Andy Cohen, the Bravo executive and host of Watch What Happens Live, told his viewers at the end of Thursday night’s episode that he had recovered from COVID-19 earlier this month, and wanted to donate his blood plasma — which contains antibodies that might be helpful in combating the virus — to help others who are infected. But because Cohen is openly gay, he was informed that he could not donate, unlike other COVID-19 survivors.
“I was told that due to antiquated and discriminatory guidelines by the FDA to prevent HIV, I am ineligible to donate blood because I’m a gay man,” Cohen said, according to The Daily Beast.
He noted that even under the new “relaxed” rules — which were recently adopted due to concerns over decreased donations and a dwindling blood supply — men who have had sex with men are required to abstain from sexual contact for three months prior to donating blood or other blood products, such as plasma. He also noted that “no such blanket restrictions” are imposed on heterosexual donors.
“Here’s the thing, this virus is ravaging our planet,” Cohen said. “The FDA says there’s an urgent need for plasma from survivors. All donated blood is screened for HIV. And a rapid HIV test can be done in 20 minutes or less. So why the three-month rule? 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,” Cohen added. “My blood could save a life, but instead it’s over here boiling! This pandemic has forced us to adapt in many ways. We’re quarantining, we’re social distancing. We’re wearing masks! Why can’t we adapt when it comes to this rule?
“It is bad enough that quarantining has us wondering what day it is,” Cohen concluded. “I’m sitting here wondering what year it is! We need to think about this and do better.”
Yuval David, an actor, filmmaker, and LGBTQ advocate who also recently recovered from COVID-19, penned an article for Medium.com in which he took the FDA to task for its three-month deferral period.
“I attribute my strong and complete recovery [from COVID-19] to my leading a health conscious lifestyle, not having any pre-existing conditions, along with being physically active and fit, having a great and nutritious diet, and being informed and attentive to health and wellness. And, maybe I was also just lucky,” David wrote. “I know I am lucky, because I lost friends who died from COVID-19.
“As I am now feeling back to normal, I want to donate blood, especially because my body has developed antibodies that can help those who are struggling with the virus,” he added.
But David, like Cohen, is also not permitted to donate blood or plasma because of his sexual orientation.
“During this coronavirus epidemic, with the current need for blood donations, the FDA changed the policy again,” David wrote. “In order to encourage donations during the coronavirus epidemic, the MSM population can now donate blood, but only if we have abstained from sex for at least three months. How are we supposed to prove that?”
He added: “Even though the FDA guidelines now state that centers could begin accepting donations from the MSM population, if following new eligibility criteria, thousands of blood centers across the United States are still turning away men who have sex with men.”
David cast blame on outdated health-history questionnaires, as well as human error on the part of staff who have been categorically turning away gay and bisexual men, regardless of sexual history.
“The truth is that blood banks, along with the FDA and AABB [formerly the American Association of Blood Banks] are reduced to expedience and are subject to political influence,” notes David. “So, even the centers with the best intentions are caught up in red tape and forced policies.
“My experience through all of this evokes a greater concern. If these blood banks rule out the MSM population for socio-political reasons and for quick expediency, does that mean appropriate tests are not done on all blood donated? Are they even capable of doing so due to limited time and budgets? If my blood cannot be trusted, why should I trust any blood that comes from a blood bank?”
In a follow-up interview with Metro Weekly, David said he knew of the history of the blood ban, which was changed from a categorical ban to a 12-month deferral period in 2015 before most recently being reduced to three months, but it had not been as much of a focus compared to the other issues, such as discrimination or marriage equality, that grabbed the bulk of the LGBTQ community’s attention in recent years.
“When I fully recovered from COVID-19, I knew, immediately, that I would want to donate blood so my plasma and my white blood cells could be used to help other people,” he said. “On the news, we hear these stories of people who are seriously struggling with this virus. So because I’m a healthy individual, and because I overcame the virus, I stand to help others, no matter who they are. But when I tried to do that, I was turned away.”
David called the idea of a deferral period that only applies to gay and bisexual men, no matter how short, “ridiculous,” instead advocating for a behavior-based risk screening for all donors.
“Why do we have to have a deferral period? What makes my blood different than the blood of a 20-something-year-old woman or man who is single and sleeping around with people every week?” he asked. “Why would my blood, as a person who is married and leads a health-conscious lifestyle, be undesirable? It’s actually a hobby of mine to be into health and wellness and fitness and nutrition. I love it. All of that would make me an ideal candidate. Yet what I do in my bedroom disqualifies me, and makes me have to abstain from sex for three months.”
David said he wrote the article on his experience being turned away from donating plasma in the hope that it would “inform and activate people” to take push for changes to the FDA policy.
He noted that the current FDA policy has been undermined by the pleas of blood banks and public health officials, including the U.S. Surgeon General, urging people to donate in order to replenish the dwindling blood supply.
In addition to supporting the LGBTQ organizations that have been at the forefront of the fight to lift the blood donation restrictions, David said that people can contact and appeal to their elected representatives to place political pressure the FDA to amend its policy.
“We have the ability to reach out and say, ‘I am one of your constituents. I am affected by this. I am trying to help my fellow Americans. Help me help you,'” he said. “We are the citizens of this country. The FDA is a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Our tax dollars pay for the FDA to function. If the FDA is responsible for protecting us, that means all of us. And that means that all of us have a say in their policies.”
The FDA recently responded to a story that aired on Friday morning on Good Morning America featuring another gay man who recovered from COVID-19 but was banned from donating plasma.
In its statement, the FDA said it is “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 agency also claimed to be “working to commence a pilot study that will enroll about 2,000 men who have sex with men and who would be willing to donate blood.”
The LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD blasted the FDA for dragging its feet, saying that there is already plenty of scientific evidence — Italy moved over to a behavioral-based screening years ago, without any corresponding increase in the number of bloodborne infections — to support eliminating the categorical restrictions currently in place.
“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,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement. “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.”
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