After recovering from COVID-19, late night talk show host Andy Cohen reported that he was denied from donating plasma because of his sexuality. According to Cohen, he was rejected from offering a plasma donation that could help with ongoing antibody testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, Cohen put FDA guidelines on blast, calling them "antiquated” and “discriminatory.”
“After recovering from coronavirus, I wanted to see if there was something that I could do to help people who were infected. I signed up for a program for COVID-19 survivors where you could donate plasma, which is rich in antibodies, to those still battling the virus,” Cohen said on his talk show. “I was told that due to antiquated, discriminatory guidelines by the FDA, to prevent HIV, I am ineligible to donate blood because I’m a gay man.”
According to FDA guidelines from April 13, only people eligible to donate blood are eligible to donate plasma. This currently does not include men who have sex with men, and women who have sex with men who have sex with men. Although the FDA noted that “COVID-19 convalescent plasma must only be collected from recovered individuals if they are eligible to donate blood,” an antiquated fear of exposing patients to HIV, despite reasonable testing, is still driving many potential donors away. 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,” and The American Red Cross has also spoken out, saying that “blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation.”
During Cohen's address, he expressed frustration over the bans, which have been in effect since the AIDs crisis in the 1980s, saying that they are based on “stigma rather than science.” But, the late night host is not the only one experiencing this homophobic restriction in the wake of coronavirus testing. On Friday, Good Morning America (GMA) reported on Lukus Estok, a young gay man who has recovered from COVID-19 who was also turned away from donating his plasma at the New York Blood Center for being gay.
Earlier in April, the FDA alleged that they were “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.” They also revealed to GMA that it is “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.”
However, Cohen explained that these new regulations were still quite discriminatory. “Even the new, relaxed rules require gay men to abstain from sex for three months, whether they’re in a monogamous relationship or not before giving blood, though no such blanket restrictions exist for people of other sexual orientations.” He also pointed out that all donated blood is screened for HIV with rapid tests taking only 20 minutes or less. "So why the three-month rule? Why are members from my community being excluded from helping out when so many people are sick and dying?”
GLAAD says that the FDA is simply not doing enough to address the issue, even now. “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 to Refinery29.
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. Now, advocates like Cohen are doing the work to once again shed light on issues that leading medical organizations have debunked, asking for the bans to be fully lifted so that as many people as possible can be saved.
“Andy Cohen’s story about being unable to donate plasma is the unfortunate reality for so many gay and bisexual men, and other LGBTQ people, in America right now,” said Anthony Ramos, GLAAD’s Head of Talent. “Whether it be those who have survived COVID-19 and want to donate their plasma for treatment, or those who are healthy and want to donate their blood during this health crisis, the FDA’s discriminatory blood ban restricts so many gay and bisexual men, and other LGBTQ people, from doing so. Like Andy said, this policy is grounded in stigma rather than science, and we continue to call on the FDA to lift these restrictions in their entirety.”