COVID-19 fuels demand for lung, heart transplants

The U.S. transplant landscape has dramatically changed since surgeons at Chicago-based Northwestern Memorial Hospital performed the nation's first known lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient in June 2020. Now, transplants involving COVID-19 patients are becoming increasingly common nationwide, with nearly two dozen hospitals having performed them, Kaiser Health News reported April 13.

"You're seeing it move around the country, and it’s moving around pretty quick," David Weill, MD, former director of Stanford (Calif.) University Medical Center’s lung and heart-lung transplant program, who is now a healthcare consultant, told KHN. "It's like wildfire, where centers are saying, 'We did our first one, too.'"

Nationwide, tens of thousands of people have developed severe, chronic lung disease after getting COVID-19, according to Dr. Weill. It's unclear how many will need lung transplants, since COVID-19 is still such a novel disease. For some patients with irreversible organ damage — whether in the lungs or elsewhere — transplants may represent their last hope for survival. 

At least 54 lung transplants and four heart transplants involving patients with COVID-19 have been recorded through March 31, according to United Network for Organ Sharing data released April 12 and cited by KHN. This figure accounts for all transplants recorded since hospitals adopted new COVID-19-related codes in October 2020. Another 26 patients are currently on waiting lists for lung transplants, and one person is waiting for a heart transplant, according to the organ-sharing network's data. 

"I think this is just the beginning," Tae Song, MD, surgical director of the University of Chicago Medical Center's lung transplant program, told KHN. "I expect this to be a completely new category of transplant patients."

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