PrEP Users, Many Gay, Bi Men Barred from COVID-Antibody Plasma Donations

The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Erlangen
Sonja Krauthoefer of Germany’s University Hospital Erlangen reviews donated blood and plasma samples on April 7 to determine if the blood can be used to produce therapeutic plasma to treat coronavirus patients who are seriously ill.
Reuters/ Andreas Gebert

As public health officials worldwide scramble to develop antibody tests to enable individuals who have recovered from the coronavirus to donate their antibody-rich plasma for experimental injections to help aid sick patients, here in the US gay and bisexual men sexually active in the past three months as well as anyone on PrEP and others who are otherwise banned by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from donating blood need not apply.

“COVID-19 convalescent plasma must only be collected from recovered individuals if they are eligible to donate blood,” an FDA spokesperson told Gay City News via email on April 7.

The demographics who are disqualified from donating blood generally or the plasma that contains potentially health-restoring conronavirus antibodies includes not only everyone currently on PrEP but also large numbers of queer men, women and non-binary folks who have had sex with them, and sex workers.

The FDA’s statement to Gay City News came just days after the federal agency’s April 2 decision to revise its policy on blood and plasma donation eligibility in an effort to increase the pool of individuals who are able to donate — given the recent fall-off in customary donors turning up at blood banks. The three-plus decade ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood was altered by reducing the time a queer man must remain sexaully abstinent in order to donate. After an absolute ban on men who have sex with men giving blood that began in 1983, the policy was revised in 2015 so that such men could give blood so long as they had been abstinent for at least a year. Last week, that period of required abstinence was reduced to three months.

In other words, the policy retained the longstanding prohibition on sexually active gay and bisexual men and any female or non-binary partners they are having sex with from donating blood. And now, those limitations have explicitly been extended to anyone wishing to donate plasma rich in COVID-19 antibodies. In fact, the policy has been broadened to also block anyone currently taking PrEP from aiding in the fight against the coronavirus.

Sabri Ben-Achour, a man taking Truvada for PrEP who suspected that he had coronavirus last month but could not get a test, documented his unsuccessful attempt to donate his antibody-rich plasma. During an interview with NBC News, he explained that he applied to donate his plasma and was subsequently invited by officials at Mount Sinai to undergo a screening process that would first require him to get his blood drawn. That blood test would determine if he had coronavirus in the first place and whether his blood contained a sufficient level of antibodies to the virus, which could benefit the recovery process for those who are very ill with coronavirus.

Ben-Achour disclosed during that screening that he was taking Truvada for PrEP, but he was nonetheless directed to draw blood at the hospital anyway. That blood work revealed that he indeed had coronavirus and a “robust” level of antibodies, prompting doctors to ask that he donate his plasma as soon as possible.

Just days later, however, he learned that blood work exercise turned out to have been a waste of time. Just as he was set for an appointment at the New York Blood Center to donate his blood, he received a phone call from Mount Sinai telling him that he would not be able to donate blood because he has been taking PrEP.

And while that case happened here in New York, individuals are likely going to be confronted with similar rejections elsewhere because the FDA’s policy applies nationwide.

One area where queer people are not expected to face rejection, however, is antibody testing that could help identify those who have been infected but never got tested for COVID-19, but have either recovered or never manifested symptoms. The FDA in early April approved an antibody test and Governor Andrew Cuomo said on April 7 that the state is moving ahead with its own antibody testing campaign.

“We cannot restart life as we knew it without testing,” Cuomo wrote in a tweet about antibody tests on April 7. “Testing is the essential component. The NYS Dept of Health has developed antibody testing and is working with the FDA to bring it to scale. We are working with NJ & CT to ensure we move forward using a regional approach.”

The revised blood and plasma ban came after a wave of public pleas from elected officials who expressed frustration that such a ban would continue through such a health crisis. Out gay Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman helped lead the way on that front, followed by out gay Councilmembers Daniel Dromm of Queens, who chairs the Council’s LGBT Caucus, and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx.

Democratic members of both houses of Congress also echoed those calls, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Carolyn Maloney of New York and Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.