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Woman who died after transplant surgery got COVID-19 from donated lungs

Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

The woman who had the double lung transplant was treated for COVID-19 in the hospital, and was given the anti-viral medicine remdesivir and convalescent plasma as well as steroids, but her condition worsened. She died about two months after her transplant surgery.

The research suggests transplant centers and organ procurement organizations should consider testing lower respiratory tract samples of potential lung donors to ensure the virus won't be passed to transplant recipients. It also suggests that health care workers should don full personal protective equipment, including eyewear and N95 masks, when performing lung transplant surgeries and organ procurement.

"Our hearts go out to the recipient's family as well as the donor's family," Nicely said. "If the recipient of donated organs dies, it's sometimes kind of a double tragedy for the donor family, too.

"That case represented certainly one of the huge challenges for donation and transplantation in the age of a pandemic. There's testing, and there's the fact that those 110,000 or so people on the waiting list don't get a respite to their end-stage organ disease. It does not take a pause just because there's a pandemic. Their disease continues to take its toll. They remain on the waiting list."

In this case, no other organs from the donor were used for transplant. The study's authors cautioned that it can't be used to suggest there is a risk of coronavirus infection when other organs, such as kidneys, liver, heart or pancreas, may pose in transplantation.


"I don't think in our field there's ever an absolute elimination of risk in transplantation," Nicely said. "Everything is ... relative because it is a matter of life and death, typically, for the recipient. And so the risk factors tend to be weighed against the state of the patient's health, the progression of the disease that has landed him on the transplant waiting list, and all the factors that are known about the donor, along with consideration and acknowledgment that there are probably some unknowns because testing remains imperfect for everything.

"We have fantastic technology for testing for infectious disease, but no one could absolutely guarantee the absence of a pathogen so what we do is test every donor.

"Donation does save lives," he said. "It really does matter. So, despite a pandemic. The need and the possibility to do good remain."

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