I Can't Donate Plasma to COVID Research Because I Had Sex with a Man 3 Years Ago

The 22-year-old's case has provoked a human rights debate in the Netherlands.
October 15, 2020, 7:15am
A zoomed in image of the novel coronavirus in the blood stream
Photo: Getty Images / Radoslav Zilinsky.

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Scientists all over the world are working furiously to develop both a vaccine and a treatment for the novel coronavirus. As ordinary citizens, we can’t put the gloves on and join them in the lab – but if you believe you’ve had COVID-19, one way you can contribute is by donating plasma to your local blood bank.

Plasma is a yellow liquid that makes up 55 percent of our blood, and contains antibodies. Globally, COVID-19 patients are currently being treated with plasma from the recovered, in the hopes that their antibodies will help to fight the virus. In the past, plasma has been used to treat viruses like rabies, hepatitis B and chickenpox.

More clinical trials are needed to establish whether the treatment is effective against COVID-19, but the US Federal Drug Authority (FDA) approved it as “potentially promising” on the 23rd of August. Meanwhile, scientists from different countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, are collecting plasma as part of a global study into its effects on the virus. Preliminary results are expected in autumn.

Wouter Ubbink, 22, thinks he contracted COVID-19 in late March. “One of my roommates is a doctor and tested positive,” Ubbink explained over the phone. “I had the same symptoms: a week in bed, ill with a fever. I didn’t get tested because there was a limited capacity [in the Netherlands] at the time, but I probably had it.”

As a long-time donor to the Dutch blood bank Sanquin, Ubbink decided to sign up for plasma donations as well. But when he called to set up an appointment, he was told his plasma wouldn’t be accepted. The reason? He’d had sex with a man three-and-a-half years ago.

Many countries don’t allow men who’ve had sex with men to donate blood. But in the Netherlands, your blood is accepted as long as the most recent sexual encounter happened more than four months before the donation. A Sanquin spokesperson said these restrictions are applied specifically to men who have sex with men because “certain infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B and HIV, are much more common within that group”.

The company tests all donations for diseases, but some viruses like hepatitis B take up to four months to show. The four-month rule also applies to other high-risk donor categories, such as people who’ve just had surgery or those who’ve recently been to Sub-Saharan Africa. The blood bank’s rules could be considered discriminatory against gay men, but in 2019 they were deemed legitimate for public health reasons by the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, an independent body that investigates human rights violations in the country.

In Ubbink’s case, it’s been years since he had sex with a man. But the Sanquin spokesperson pointed out that his plasma could end up being used outside of the Netherlands, since labs all over the world are cooperating to develop the treatment. “We have to abide by international rules, otherwise we can’t participate,” they said, while stressing that Sanquin wasn’t happy with the current situation. “The Netherlands is too small to do this on its own,” they said.

Good intentions or not, the blood bank is hiding behind international rules. Meanwhile, the Dutch regulations are still unclear. In 2015, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights decided Sanquin could not permanently ban a man from donating blood because of his past sexual relations with men. But the institute’s decision doesn’t apply to plasma and isn’t legally binding, although it could be cited in court in case of a lawsuit.

“I understand that this is a tough decision,” said Ubbink, “But ultimately, it’s based on conservative norms in other countries.” The institute is currently investigating Ubbink’s case, with results pending. For now, a spokesperson told VICE News that they are unable to comment on ongoing cases. Meanwhile, Wouter said he hopes both Sanquin and Dutch politicians will pressure the international community to change their approach.

“Maybe it’s time for a European law on this issue,” he said.