Michigan Lung Transplant Recipient Dies From Spread of COVID-19 Through Donor Lungs

DETROIT – With careful examination, organ transplants are still carried out in the era of COVID-19.

However, doctors are learning more about how the disease can escape detection on a daily basis.

A Michigan woman tragically died of COVID-19 from transplanted lungs that were supposed to save her life.

Lung transplants are still being done. In fact, a lung transplant can save the life of someone whose lungs have been destroyed by COVID-19.

In cases that are not related to COVID-19, both donor and recipient are routinely screened to ensure they are free of infection, but a new case highlights the need for a more advanced examination. Last year, nearly 40,000 organs were transplanted in the US, and more than 2,500 were lung transplants – about the same number that had been done in previous years.

Now, a new report from the University of Michigan published in the American Journal of Transplantation describes the first case of COVID-19 to be transmitted in a pair of lungs.


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The donor was a woman who suffered a serious brain injury in a car accident. She had no history of COVID-19 or any symptoms such as fever, cough, or headache, and prior to obtaining the organ, she had a negative nasal swab for the COVID-19 virus.

The woman who received the donated lungs had end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and also tested negative for the COVID-19 virus.

Three days after her lung transplant, she developed a fever and worsening lung function. A CT scan of her new lungs looked like COVID.

Even though the donor’s nasal swab had been negative for COVID, they were found to be positive when they returned and their original lung washes tested.

During the initial procedure, the doctors believed that both the donor and the recipient were COVID-free and were therefore not required to wear an N-95 mask or eye protection.


The thoracic surgeon who performed the transplant tested positive four days after surgery. Sixty-one days after transplantation, the recipient died.

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When studying what happened, the viruses of the donor, the recipient and the surgeon were subjected to genetic sequencing.

The coronavirus in both the donor and the recipient was identical. Furthermore, the surgeon’s virus was essentially identical only different from a mutation believed to have occurred during his infection.

It’s not really clear if the virus can be spread by other organ transplants, but screening for COVID from donors has been done since the beginning of the pandemic and specifically for non-lung donors they recommend at least one sample from the respiratory tract.


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