Surgeons at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago have performed the first lung transplant on an American COVID-19 survivor using the lungs of another person known to have recovered from the disease.
The recipient—a 60-year-old health-care worker from Illinois—was placed on life support after being diagnosed with COVID in May, according to the hospital. He was transferred to Northwestern and spent a week on the transplant list before being matched with the donor, who recovered from the disease before dying of unrelated causes.
Surgeons performed the transplant in February and announced it this week.
“This is a milestone for lung transplantation,” Ankit Bharat, chief of thoracic surgery and surgical director of the Northwestern Medicine Lung Transplant Program, said in a statement, noting that many of the 30 million Americans who have had COVID-19 are registered organ donors.
“If we say ‘no’ to them just because they had COVID-19 in the past, we will drastically reduce the donor pool and there’s already a big supply and demand gap,” he said.
Surgeons only recently began performing lung transplants on COVID patients, raising concerns that an increased demand would lead to a shortage of available organs. The wait list for lung transplants in the U.S. hovers around 1,000, with a mortality rate of about 10 percent.
In January, Northwestern told The Daily Beast it had received double the number of transplant requests it usually gets in a given year, and other hospitals said they were getting multiple requests a week. At the time, Bharat and other transplant surgeons said it was crucial to expand the donor pool to meet the increase in demand.
But last month, a Michigan woman died after receiving the lungs of a donor whose body was harboring the virus, despite initially testing negative, proving that transmission through organ donation could occur. Michael Ison, an infectious diseases and organ transplantation specialist at Northwestern, said many transplant centers were unnecessarily tossing out donor organs for fear of a similar incident.
To prevent that from happening in this case, doctors at Northwestern performed extensive testing to ensure the donor’s lungs were completely clear of the virus, including both a nasal swab and an examination of the donor’s lung fluid.
“If the swab and lung fluid both come back clear of the virus and the lung biopsy confirms there’s no permanent damage to the lungs, we can feel confident in the quality of the donor lungs,” Bharat said. “Our first ‘COVID to COVID’ patient received beautiful, healthy lungs and continues to recover at optimal pace.”
Northwestern has so far performed 14 lung transplants on COVID patients; the University of Florida has performed more than 10. Doctors in Belgium successfully performed a lung transplant using the lungs of a woman believed to have had COVID-19 last year. They deemed the recipient’s recovery at 90 days post-surgery “excellent.”