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COVID vaccine skeptics have asked Canadian hospitals for 'unvaccinated' blood

National Post logo National Post 2023-02-03 Sharon Kirkey
Transfusion specialists and the Canadian Blood Services have stressed that there is no evidence that transfused blood collected from COVID-vaccinated donors poses any harms to recipients. © Provided by National Post Transfusion specialists and the Canadian Blood Services have stressed that there is no evidence that transfused blood collected from COVID-vaccinated donors poses any harms to recipients.
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Even as the pandemic abates, some issues are still lingering, with some who need blood transfusions appealing to hospitals and Canada’s blood supplier with the request that they receive blood from unvaccinated donors.

The requests are based on unfounded beliefs about vaccine “tainted” blood that have percolated among skeptics and conspiracy theorists, but they highlight the ongoing tensions over vaccination, even as the world moves into year four of COVID.

The true number of inquiries for “unvaccinated” blood is difficult to pin down. Canadian Blood Services said it has received a limited number, but would not say how many, and when the National Post reached out to half a dozen hospitals and hospital networks, most did not respond to requests to comment.

Still, reports of people refusing blood from vaccinated donors appear to figure in to what some have called a “clean blood” movement, driven by misinformation and some alternative-medicine practitioners. “Pure blood” has become a bio description on dating apps, while Agence France-Presse reports that a Swiss naturopath is working to create supplies of “mRNA-free” blood, worldwide. Canada is among the countries where Zurich-based George Della Pietra is hoping to establish a presence.

The fears among those refusing “vaccinated” blood include that mRNA-based vaccines can genetically modify humans, that the unvaccinated can get “vaccinated” via a blood transfusion, that the pandemic itself is a political hoax and that people who have chosen to be vaccinated “are in some way inferior.”

Stories of people declining transfusions in other countries have sparked bioethical debates in Canada, with some suggesting the requests are, in part, an “unintended consequence” of vaccine mandates — a notion that others have sought to debunk.

Transfusion specialists and the Canadian Blood Services have stressed that there is no evidence that transfused blood collected from COVID-vaccinated donors poses any harms to recipients.

But the issue is a sensitive one: Doctors who have been involved in fielding demands for “unvaccinated blood” worry they’ll be targeted by anti-vaccine groups or accused of withholding life-saving therapy if they speak publicly.

In Canada, there’s no deferral period between the time someone is vaccinated with a “non-live” vaccine — which currently authorized COVID vaccines are — and when they can donate blood. The U.S. takes a similar stance. There are also no requirements to collect or note a donor’s vaccination status on the label of blood products, meaning it’s not possible to select blood that comes from an unvaccinated donor. What’s more, 83 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. The country’s donor blood supply is almost entirely sourced from the vaccinated.

In response, some people have asked to choose their own unvaccinated donor, or to donate blood to a child.

However, so-called directed donations are inherently riskier for the recipient, with no clear benefit, according to the Canadian Blood Services. Blood from a first-degree relative can be associated with a potentially deadly immune reaction known as graft versus host disease. Relatives might also feel pressured to donate, some of whom “may have a confidential or private reason that prevents them from being eligible to donate blood,” the agency says on its website. If they answer screening questions untruthfully, they could end up donating blood that’s less safe than blood from the general pool.

What’s more, if there’s a complication, and the hospital knew the donation wasn’t scientifically justifiable, who’s liable? Direct donations are usually only granted if there’s a compelling medical reason. Offering one purely based on someone’s vaccine status would set a dangerous precedent, ethicists have said. Where do you draw the line? Would hospitals have to appease patients refusing blood from certain other donors, based on false beliefs or prejudice?

A Toronto hospital and Canadian Blood Services declined a request late last year from a father seeking to donate his own blood to his young adult son, who needed surgery because of a tumour growing in his brain. Fluid was building and putting pressure on his brain. The father said his son, who was in a coma, would not want to be transfused with blood from a donor who had received a COVID vaccine, and that, if any blood should be needed, the father argued, he should be the donor.

It’s not the only instance of such an attempt in Canada.

In October, a Calgary obstetrician tweeted, as the CBC first reported , that a woman scheduled for a caesarean section said she would refuse blood from a donor who had been vaccinated. Other doctors in southern Alberta reported similar requests.

Elsewhere in December, in a case that drew global media attention, New Zealand’s High Court took temporary custody of a six-month-old baby who required surgery for a heart defect, but whose parents had demanded he not receive a transfusion from a COVID-19 mRNA vaccinated blood donor. The parents said they did not want their baby to receive blood that contained “spike proteins” or other “contaminants” from mRNA vaccines, fears that are not backed up by science.

In the two years blood from vaccinated donors has been used in blood transfusions, “we’ve seen no evidence of any kind of safety concern,” Dr. Roy Silverstein, chair of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, told the  Factcheck.org website .

The mRNA vaccines contain genetic material used to prompt cells to make a protein, or a piece of a protein, that triggers an immune response. There’s no reason why blood would become a mechanism for passively causing that response in someone else, doctors have said.

Because the mRNA doesn’t enter the nucleus where DNA resides, it can’t be converted into DNA, or modify DNA, infectious diseases specialists wrote in the National Post. This is one of the false fears motivating anti-vaccine skeptics.

It also degrades quickly.

“The nucleic acid particles are very unstable and break down very quickly after they are translated into proteins,” said Dr. Davinder Sidhu, who leads the division of transfusion and transplant medicine for southern Alberta.

As well, given the delays from the time of the donation, to the time a blood product is transfused — several days, to weeks later — “it’s highly unlikely there would be anything present” in the donor blood, Sidhu said.

“So, any claim of somehow getting ‘second-hand vaccinated’ by blood seems very silly, and not especially evidence based.”

Maya Goldenberg, a University of Guelph philosopher, and Chris Kaposy, a professor at the Memorial University Centre for Bioethics, have argued that blood supplies are “precious enough” that a precedent allowing for tailored requests would be dangerous.

“Asking for unvaccinated blood would count as demand for treatment unsupported by medical standards, and so there is no moral obligation for providers to put in the additional effort to meet the parents’ request,” they write, in a piece for Impact Ethics , on the New Zealand case.

These cases have similarities to cases of patients refusing lifesaving treatment for their children that have been argued in the past.

What makes the New Zealand case, and others like it unique, is the “strangeness of the request for unvaccinated blood,” Goldberg and Kaposy say.

“We normalized different treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated people to an extent that we never had before,” Goldenberg said in an interview.

And the request for unvaccinated blood may be a consequence of that, she said.

“I wonder if this is more of that — that we shouldn’t be too surprised that unvaccinated people, having already experienced feelings of marginalization, limited access to public spaces, lack of freedom of movement, are going to say, ‘Well, I’m going to ask for different things, too.’”

We can’t normalize requests for unvaccinated blood, Goldenberg said. “That’s just not a reasonable ask.” There’s also no scientific justification for doing so, she said. “There’s nothing there.”

Bioethecist Maxwell Smith, associate director of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western University, doesn’t agree that the  “bizarre” instances  of people requesting blood from unvaccinated donors has ties to, or is an unforeseen consequence of, COVID mandates or vaccine policies. Misinformation about the shots predated any mandate, he pointed out.

“People out there have been saying, long before mandates, that mRNA vaccines can change your DNA, that they contain things that will harm you, you can shed it to other people around you, and you should not have that in your blood,’” Smith said.

“It seems to me that that has a very clear correlation with people not wanting the blood of people that have received mRNA in their body or having a transfusion for your kid.”

The Ottawa Hospital said it hasn’t encountered patients refusing blood over COVID vaccines. Sidhu said requests for unvaccinated donors have fallen off in southern Alberta since the fall, with no new requests recently. The issue, he said, “seems to be fading a bit,” now that COVID mandates have been lifted and people are more preoccupied with issues like rising inflation and getting access to health care.

Still, Smith said it’s important to be careful “about how we proceed with these sorts of cases.”

“You might have an attractive case where, say, a father or mother of a young kid says, ‘Look, let me donate my blood instead because I happen to know mine is unvaccinated.’”

In a hospital situation, Ontario’s Consent and Capacity Review board can adjudicate disputes over the medical care of someone — like a child — who doesn’t have the capacity to consent for themselves.

“We could say, ‘Let’s just acquiesce, and take blood from the parent,’” Smith said.

But that would give air to the idea that there’s some merit to the request, he said.

“We need to be very clear and say, ‘Look, there is no reason to think that vaccinated blood is any different from unvaccinated blood, and there’s no evidence that patients can select safer donors than the volunteer blood system provides.’”

“If we stick to those principles, then these sorts of cases hopefully dwindle.”

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