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Gay men restricted from donating plasma to U.K. coronavirus trials

“If I could donate plasma and it helped, at least there’s a silver lining to becoming sick,” one gay man who recovered from COVID-19 said.

Sexually active gay and bisexual men are restricted from donating plasma to a coronavirus research trial in the United Kingdom, and a number of them have expressed disappointment and anger about being excluded.

“Not only is it obviously frustrating but it’s short-sighted,” Ethan Spibey, a blood donation advocate, told NBC News. “Donating blood, you don’t get paid; it’s about doing something amazing for other people.”

The trials, led in part by the National Health Service, aim to fight the coronavirus. Though there is no proven treatment for the virus, which has sparked a global pandemic, the research is based on evidence that COVID-19 patients may benefit from a convalescent plasma donation, according to the publicly funded health care system.

Twenty-eight days after recovery, those who have had COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, are asked to donate convalescent plasma, a liquid part of the blood that contains antibodies after a virus. The NHS website says donations will be used in several national COVID-19 clinical trials and possibly as a treatment in hospitals if proven successful.

Trial researchers were directed to rely on the current donation guidelines by the government’s health department already in place, according to a spokesperson from NHS Blood and Transplant. One of the rules states that, while gay and bisexual men are not outright banned from giving blood, men “must wait 3 months after having oral or anal sex with another man before donating.”

“We appreciate that any deferral is disappointing if you want to save lives by giving blood, platelets or plasma,” an NHS Blood and Transplant spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News. “We recognize that people want to be considered as individuals as much as possible.”

A number of countries around the world, including the United States, have policies restricting blood donations from men who have sex with men that date back to the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS crisis. While a number of countries have relaxed or repealed these restrictions, they are still very much in effect in a number of countries around the globe. However, the blood shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has reignited calls for change to these policies. Just last month, the U.S. shortened its blood donation deferral period for men who have sex with men to 3 months from a year, where it had been since 2015 (prior to 2015, there had been a lifetime ban on blood donations for men who have sex with men in the U.S.)

Joseph Heskin, a London-based sexual health doctor, started his application to donate plasma after recovering from the coronavirus. Heskin, who is gay, found out he would not qualify to donate after seeing a news report on the topic a few days later.

“Everyone is quite eager to do what they can to contribute in some way to potentially finding some treatment and to help the people who are unwell,” Heskin said. “If I could donate plasma and it helped, at least there’s a silver lining to becoming sick.”

Spibey is the founder of Freedom to Donate, a coalition of nonprofits working to change policy so men who have had sex with men are more able to donate blood. He proposes that blood centers implement an individualized risk assessment, which would include questions about a donor’s sexual health and behavior, for men wanting to give blood.

“We think we’re offering an entirely safe solution on how you could unlock this potential,” said Spibey, who added the NHS has been open to discussions and supportive of his organization’s mission. “By anyone's estimation, three months is a hell of a dry patch at best.”

In a statement, an NHS Blood and Transplant spokesperson said the unit is “already working collaboratively with LGBT+ groups on blood donation.”

Gay and bisexual men like Heskin hope to have the chance to give blood in the future without any unique restrictions due to their sexual orientation.

“That passion says people want to do this incredible selfless gesture of donating,” Spibey said.

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