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Despite Blood Supplies Critically Low, Some Gay Men Still Cannot Donate Plasma

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Throughout the pandemic, thousands of blood drives across the country have been canceled, leaving blood supplies critically low. Yet a portion of the population is restricted from donating. Many argue that a federal policy preventing many gay men from donating blood is driven by stigma rather than science. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED explains.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Blood banks are flooding the airwaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK MCGEORGE: If you are not ill and you qualify to donate blood, please do it.

MCCLURG: Hearing call-outs like that is painful for Samuel Garrett-Pate.

SAMUEL GARRETT-PATE: So I tested positive for COVID couple days after Thanksgiving, actually. I just was very tired, a bit of body aches.

MCCLURG: The 28-year-old was back on his feet after a few weeks. The first thing he wanted to do was go to a blood bank as a deadly COVID-19 surge hit Los Angeles.

GARRETT-PATE: I potentially have something that could at least help someone recover, prevent someone from dying, in me. And yet simply because I am gay, I can't do anything with it.

MCCLURG: His body is coursing with antibodies, little tiny proteins designed to ward off future infections. They're carried in a yellowish fluid called blood plasma.

SUCHI PANDEY: It's liquid gold. That's what it's (laughter) often called, liquid gold.

MCCLURG: Dr. Suchi Pandey is the chief medical officer for Stanford Blood Center. She says early results from clinical trials show that donated plasma from people who have battled COVID-19 is beneficial for other sick patients.

PANDEY: So far, I think the data is promising.

MCCLURG: Pandey says the best time to donate plasma is soon after someone recovers from COVID-19 because that's when their antibody levels are the highest. But that's not possible for gay men. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration determined it was too dangerous for men who were having sex with other men to donate blood. The lifetime ban was shortened to a year of celibacy in 2015 and then reduced to three months last April, which is still a problem according to California State Senator Scott Wiener.

SCOTT WIENER: The FDA's blood donation ban is 100% driven by fear, ignorance and outdated stereotypes about gay and bisexual men.

MCCLURG: The FDA argues that their position is based on the best available evidence. An agency spokesperson wrote in a statement that while blood supply screening is highly sensitive, a small risk of HIV transmission still exists.

MONICA HAHN: There is absolutely nothing scientifically that justifies this ban.

MCCLURG: Dr. Monica Hahn is an HIV specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. She says back in the '80s, it took several months to know if you'd contracted HIV after a sexual encounter. That's no longer the case.

HAHN: We can very accurately detect the presence of HIV in patients about 10 days after HIV transmission occurs.

MCCLURG: She says requiring anything longer than 10 days without sex isn't necessary. So back in Los Angeles, potential blood donor Samuel Garrett-Pate says it's unfair that he and his boyfriend would have to wait.

GARRETT-PATE: Someone who's just as sexually active but not a man having sex with men can walk into any blood bank in America and give blood.

MCCLURG: The FDA is considering swapping out the three-month celibacy requirement for a risk questionnaire. Donors would answer questions about their sexual activity. Anybody who is not monogamous, gay or straight, would have to wait. Garrett-Pate would gladly fill this out.

GARRETT-PATE: All any of us want to do in life is help other people, whether it's donating blood, donating plasma. We're holding them back from making an impact on the world.

MCCLURG: He says science should drive health policy, not homophobia. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLY MASON'S "RESTLESS FUGITIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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