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FDA eases restrictions on gay blood donors amid 'urgent need'

The decision to reduce the donation deferral period for men who have sex with men comes as blood drives are being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid what it’s calling an “urgent need for blood,” the Food and Drug Administration revised its blood donor guidelines on Thursday, significantly easing the restrictions on men who have sex with men.

The new guidelines reduce the donation deferral period for sexually active gay and bisexual men from 12 months to three, meaning these otherwise healthy men will now have to abstain from same-sex sexual activity for 90 days before they are eligible to donate blood.

Other 12-month deferral periods have also been shortened under the new guidelines, including those for people who have traveled to areas with certain endemic diseases, those who have engaged in injection drug use and people who have participated in commercial sex work.

Restrictions on gay blood donors date to 1983, during the height of the AIDS crisis, when the federal government instituted a lifetime ban on blood donations by any man who had ever had sex with another man. The rule, intended to keep HIV out of the blood supply, was replaced in 2015 with the year-long abstinence requirement.

Prior to the release of Thursday’s updated guidelines, restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men — who represent about 70 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. — had come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates, particularly after coronavirus fears forced the cancellation of many in-person blood drives.

In a Thursday call with reporters, Surgeon General Jerome Adams said it’s “critically important” that people living with HIV do not give blood, but said the new changes better reflected the time it takes to detect HIV in blood after certain risky behaviors.

Adams also touted changes to the donor requirements for people who have recently gotten tattoos or piercings, hoping they too would grow the eligible blood donor pool.

“These changes are based on the best science that we have today regarding the time that it takes to test positive for HIV,” Adams told reporters, saying the updated guidance would reduce stigma and encourage more people “to do the right thing: donate blood.”

As NBC News reported on Wednesday, at least one gay man who tried to donate blood to give COVID-19 plasma antibodies was told that he was disqualified for 12 months because he takes Truvada to remain HIV-negative. On Thursday’s call, the FDA’s Dr. Peter Marks said that each blood center can decide how long blood donors must stop taking certain medications, like Truvada, before coming in to donate. “Each blood center might be a little bit different,” Marks said.

For people who recover from COVID-19 and seek to donate plasma for experimental antibody treatments, Marks said they should wait for two weeks after all symptoms have resolved and will likely need to test negative for active coronavirus prior to donating blood. Those who wait four weeks after the resolution of COVID-19 symptoms may not need an additional test. In either case, Marks said, “they need documentation” of their COVID-19 status.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who led the effort by a group of 15 senators to ease the gay donor restrictions, called the FDA’s new guidelines “an important step” but said there’s “still more work to be done.”

“The administration needs to change their blood donation policies to be based on individual risk so that all healthy gay and bisexual men are able to donate,” she said in a statement shared with NBC News. “This is more important than ever as we continue working to address the COVID-19 pandemic and help save lives.”

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, issued a similar statement.

“While this change by the FDA is a step in the right direction, it still bases itself in bias rather than science,” the organization’s president, Alphonso David, stated. “Creating policy based on identity as opposed to risk is irrational and given the current COVID-19 crisis, it is more critical than ever to prioritize science and facts over fear and bias.”

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