Why a Lawmaker Is Pushing to Change Plasma Donation Rules

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Jill Cowan

c.2020 The New York Times Company


As more people around the world are sickened by the coronavirus, there haven’t been many silver linings. For most people who have been infected, treatment is limited.

Recently, though, a sliver of hope has emerged in the form of plasma from the blood of coronavirus survivors, which, as my New York Times colleague Denise Grady reported, can be a “rich source of antibodies.”

So-called convalescent plasma has long been used to treat other infectious diseases, including Ebola, and while it’s still very much unproven for treating coronavirus, doctors say it’s worth trying now.

“There are multiple benefits to think about, and since this is not a drug that needs to be manufactured, it could be obtained easily,” said Dr. Timothy Byun, a hematologist and oncologist who directs cancer research at St. Joseph Hospital Orange. “This could really be an exciting treatment if it works.”

The Food and Drug Administration said Friday that the agency would lead an effort to speed up the development of blood-related treatments. The agency has partnered with the American Red Cross to set up a kind of clearinghouse to match eligible plasma donors who have recovered from the virus with patients who need care.

But for many members of a community that was devastated by the AIDS epidemic — one of the few rough analogues for the current pandemic — signing up to help is out of the question: Men who have had sex with men in the past three months can’t donate plasma or blood, which is in desperately short supply.

“This is no longer a theoretical issue of discrimination against gay and bisexual men,” Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco, told me. “This policy is now directly undermining our efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He said he was set to send a letter Tuesday calling on the FDA to lift any restrictions on blood and plasma donation that are specific to men who have sex with men.

“It is unacceptable that a gay or bisexual man cannot donate plasma to help develop COVID-19 treatments, even though no such restriction applies to straight people who are sexually active,” he wrote in the letter to Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the FDA commissioner.

Beginning during the AIDS epidemic, gay and bisexual men were barred for life from donating blood as a precautionary measure intended to ensure that blood wasn’t tainted with HIV.

Gay and bisexual men have been most affected by HIV. But advocates have said that many of the reasons behind the initial ban are moot in light of modern diagnostic technology.

In 2015, the FDA eased the restriction, revising its guidelines to allow men who had not had sex with men for a year to donate blood.

On Thursday, not long after a Mother Jones journalist reported on his experience recovering from the virus and being turned away from a plasma program because he is gay, the FDA relaxed those guidelines even more, shortening the waiting period for men who have had sex with men to three months.

In sending his letter, Wiener joined a chorus of LGBTQ advocates who said that was a start, but not enough.

“While this change by the FDA is a step in the right direction, it still bases itself in bias rather than science,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement last week.

On Monday, the FDA did not comment on whether it would consider completely lifting the restriction.

What’s clear, doctors say, is the need for donors.

Byun, of St. Joseph Hospital, said he and colleagues turned to social media to find their first convalescent plasma donor late last month, because the national site wasn’t yet up and running.

Jason Garcia, the 36-year-old Escondido man who answered the post, told me about how he started to feel sick while he was away from his wife and baby daughter on a work trip.

When he got home, he was able to get tested while his family prepared space for him to self-isolate, although his symptoms had largely dissipated.

Two weeks later, San Diego County public health officials declared him recovered from the coronavirus in a letter, which meant that when a friend posted about the hospital seeking a plasma donor, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I kind of knew they were looking for a needle in a haystack,” Garcia said. “It felt great to turn this around and have it be kind of a positive thing.”