Six COVID-19 patients undergo free lung transplants in China

By Zhao Yusha Source:Global Times Published: 2020/6/12 23:18:41

Chen Jingyu a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC) and renowned expert in the lung transplant field, with other doctors perform a lung transplant surgery for a COVID-19 patient in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province in April. Photo: Courtesy of Chen Jingyu

At least six COVID-19 patients have undergone lung transplants in China as a final option to save virus patients in critical condition, with medical costs totaling more than 7 million yuan ($1.1 million), which was covered by the government.

Experts say this shows China is employing every possible means to save lives. 

The COVID-19 patients who received lung transplants ranged from 55 to 73 years of age, Huang Jiefu, head of the China National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee and chairman of the China Organ Transplantation Development Foundation, told the Global Times at an event concerning Chinese organ donation on Thursday. 

Huang said organ transplants are the final option to save COVID-19 patients in critical condition. "Lung transplants are the last choice for those who cannot be saved by respirators or ECMO machines," said Huang, noting that there were certain standards patients had to meet before undergoing transplant.

Only those who suffer lung failure after recovering from the virus can undergo lung transplant, said Huang. Doctors have to be highly protected in case of infection.

Chen Jingyu, a renowned lung transplant expert who performed China's first double-lung transplant on a novel coronavirus patient, told the Global Times on Thursday that before the first operation, he and his team were not sure whether lung transplants were a feasible way to cure patients as the virus is highly contagious. "But later, although these patients tested negative for the virus, it had caused lung fibrosis and they would have died had effective measures not been taken," said Chen.

On February 29, he performed China's first double-lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. Later in March, he successfully replaced a 73-year-old COVID-19 patient's lung. 

Chen said operating on patients was a greater challenge as many had contracted the virus earlier and been hospitalized longer than patients elsewhere in China. 

Despite the great difficulties, Chen and his team successfully performed organ transplants for two patients in Wuhan, one of them 65-year-old Cui Zhiqiang who had been breathing with the assistance of an ECMO machine for more than 60 days.

Chen said the risk and cost of performing an organ transplant on a COVID-19 patient is much higher than a normal organ transplant. "The medical personnel were highly protected. We even wore headgear, which made it impossible for us to communicate during the operations. After a surgery was complete, a patient required 24 hours of nonstop medical observation. The cost is incalculable."

According to Huang, each patient's treatment cost 1.24 million yuan, and their expenses will be covered entirely by the government. "I believe this shows how the Chinese government has prioritized people's lives, and how it will utilize every means to save lives," said Huang. 

Chen said his paper on lung transplants for COVID-19 patients has drawn international attention. His team held video conferences in April with medical experts from Duke University in the US. Medics from Cleveland in the US and Milan in Italy have also asked him how to select COVID-19 patients for lung transplant and how to protect patients and surgeons during the operations.

In late May, doctors in Milan successfully completed a double lung transplant on a novel coronavirus patient, marking the first such operation in Italy. The doctor immediately contacted Chen, expressing gratitude for his inspiration.

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