Liberals cite COVID-19 for unchanged blood donation ban policy
A bag of blood is shown at a clinic in Montreal on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- While COVID-19 has prompted calls for blood donations due to a shortage, the pandemic is also putting off the Liberals' promise to open up donor eligibility to gay men and some other folks in the LGBTQ community, according to federal Diversity and Inclusion Minister Bardish Chagger.
It's now been more than 110 days since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that the long-promised blood donation ban policy would be changing "very soon."
On June 12, during a COVID-19 aid-related announcement, Trudeau said he was “very hopeful that we'll be able to announce the results and the change, very soon.”
Asked what the holdup was, Chagger said on Thursday that "there has been some delays within research because of COVID-19, but we remain committed."
Chagger said that the government is continuing to work with Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec "to ensure that our decisions are based on evidence, not ideology."
The research underway includes studying donors’ eligibility criteria and alternative screening processes.
Earlier this week, the All Blood is Equal Coalition sent an open letter to Trudeau, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and the CEOs of Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec urging quick action to end the ban given the future shortages the second wave of COVID-19 cases could lead to.
"Each year, thousands of willing blood donors in Canada are turned away because of their identity," reads the letter in part.
Both Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec have been seeking blood donations given a shortage due to the pandemic as well as seeking out plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients for critical research and possible treatments. However, willing donors have been turned away due to the existing ban.
"Rather than eliminate an entire base of potential donors based on their sexuality, Canada must shift towards a gender-neutral screening process that examines behaviour and risk. By asking the same questions to everyone, we can keep our blood supply safe while allowing an entirely new pool of donors to contribute to the system," the advocates wrote in the letter.
Over the last several years governments have cited the need for more research before eliminating the ban. The Liberals funded that research during their last mandate and it was set to be completed last fall, with the new guidelines set to be presented to the government in early 2020.
However, as of late August the final report had not been completed, according to Health Canada.
"The research in question is ongoing," the agency told CTVNews.ca.
As the policies stand, gay and bisexual men who have sex with men, as well as trans women, have to wait three months after having sex with a man before being able to donate. The ban on some donors was implemented in 1992 as an outright prohibition following the tainted blood scandal that played out between the 1980s and 1990s and saw thousands of Canadians infected with HIV after receiving donor blood from across the donor pool, before testing was available to detect HIV.
The three-month time frame for blood donations came into effect in June 2019 after Health Canada approved a request from the Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec to reduce the blood donation ban on men who have sex with men from one year to three months.
This reduction in the deferral period was the second update to the policy since the Liberals came to power. In 2016 the deferral period was brought down to one year, down from the previous five-year wait after the Liberals campaigned in 2015 on ending the ban altogether. At the time the party stated that the policy "ignores scientific evidence and must end.”