Doctors Press F.D.A. to Let More Gay Men Donate Blood

A letter signed by more than 500 medical professionals cited recent fears of a blood shortage during the coronavirus pandemic.

Eliminating restrictions on blood donations by gay and bisexual men would help to address a shortage related to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a letter to the F.D.A. signed by hundreds of medical professionals.
Credit...Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

More than 500 doctors, researchers and public health specialists are calling on the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate constraints on blood donations by gay and bisexual men, saying the agency did not go far enough when it relaxed its restrictions earlier this month.

The demand was made in a letter dated Thursday that was written by two doctors at the University of California, San Francisco, and signed by hundreds of medical professionals at places like Emory University, Harvard Medical School and the University of Florida. Dispensing with the rules, the letter said, would help to address a drastic drop in the blood supply during the coronavirus pandemic.

The F.D.A.’s restrictions date to 1983, early in the AIDS epidemic, when the agency banned donations from gay and bisexual men outright for fear of introducing H.I.V. into the nation’s blood supply. In 2015, the agency scrapped the lifetime ban but continued to bar donations from men who had had sex with men in the previous 12 months, arguing that the waiting period was necessary to keep the blood supply safe.

On April 2, after donations dropped precipitously as blood drives were canceled nationwide because of the coronavirus, the agency shortened the deferral period to three months from one year, saying that recent studies had shown that doing so would not compromise the safety of the blood supply.

The letter on Thursday said the move was a “step in the right direction.” But it echoed a yearslong campaign led by L.G.B.T.Q. activists and some researchers who have said that any blanket rules preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood were antiquated and even discriminatory.

“We are not advocating for relaxing standards that would compromise the safety of our blood supply,” the doctors wrote. “Instead, we advocate for scientifically driven standards that uphold the utmost safety of the blood supply and simultaneously promote equity and reverse historical discrimination in blood donation.”

An F.D.A. spokeswoman said Friday that the agency “remains committed to gathering the scientific data that support donor deferral policies that are nonexclusive while maintaining a high level of blood safety.”

The doctors’ letter said that there are now sophisticated ways of determining whether a blood donor has H.I.V. and that potential donors should be screened based on whether they had engaged in specific, higher-risk behaviors, like injecting certain drugs or having unprotected sex with a partner who has transmissible H.I.V. The letter said that men in monogamous relationships with other men and those who take drugs to prevent H.I.V. through pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, were relatively low-risk donors.

“One might argue that a gay man who has monogamous relations or who is taking PrEP has a much, much lower risk for H.I.V. than, say, a heterosexual man who has multiple sex partners or engages in other high-risk activities,” Dr. Monica Hahn, an H.I.V. specialist and family physician, said in an interview.

Dr. Hahn, who wrote the letter to the F.D.A. with Dr. Deborah Cohan, said that H.I.V. tests today can determine whether someone is infected in about 10 days.

Blood donations are vital in health care, helping to treat “accident and burn victims, heart surgery and organ transplant patients, and those battling cancer and other life-threatening conditions,” according to the F.D.A.

The American Red Cross said in a statement on Thursday that despite fears of a dire blood shortage in March, “immediate patient needs have been met thanks to the many who gave blood over the past month.”

“During this uncertain period, the Red Cross is closely monitoring our blood supply as the need for blood remains constant throughout this pandemic and beyond,” the organization said.

The Red Cross, which like other blood collection groups must follow F.D.A. guidelines, did not answer specific questions about the potential elimination of the deferral period. Instead, it pointed to a statement it issued in November saying that “it seeks to build an inclusive environment that embraces diversity for all those who engage with our lifesaving mission” and that “blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of Glaad, an L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group that helped gather signatures for the letter, said that there were many people who wanted to help and could not because of their sexual orientation.

“If in a global pandemic, the F.D.A. can’t prioritize science over stigma,” she said, “it sends a really large message.”