Organ transplants and coronavirus

Frequently asked questions

How is organ donation and transplantation affected?

We know this remains a very worrying time for anyone waiting for an organ transplant and the safety of organ donation and transplantation is our priority.

We were pleased that over the summer, with great team effort across the NHS, we were able to reopen all transplant units and the number of donations and transplants started to recover to pre COVID-19 levels.

However, during this current surge hospitals and their transplant units are experiencing out of the ordinary challenges, with staff shortages and pressure on theatre and ICU capacity. Deaths from other causes where a person could potentially be considered as an organ donor, are likely to be lower than normal because of a different pattern of admissions to ICU.

We have documented shared learning from previous surges in coronavirus cases earlier in the year and plan to continue doing so.  By shared learning we now know more about keeping patients safe and treating coronavirus.

Our priority is to increase donation and transplantation activity once it is appropriate and safe to do so. Once again we will to work hard to support families and continue to provide guidance to clinicians to facilitate organ donation where possible, helping more of the thousands of people waiting to have their transplants.

How will COVID-19 affect theatre/ICU capacity for donation and transplant?

NHSBT and NHS England are monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on ICU capacity and resources, working closely with Intensive Care colleagues. This is also about the safety of organ donation and transplantation.

If someone has COVID-19 they will not be able to donate, and all potential donors are being tested for COVID-19.

Patient safety is paramount, there needs to be a balancing of the patient’s need for transplant against the additional challenges of being immuno-suppressed at this time.

Is it safe to have an organ transplant at the moment?

There is no known transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19) through organ donation. 

Deceased organ donation is being considered on a case by case basis. Every potential organ donor is being tested for COVID-19 and if someone has COVID-19 they will not be able to donate.

All potential recipients will also be tested when they are admitted for a possible transplant.

Although there is no known transmission of COVID-19 through organ donation, as patients who need a transplant have significant health problems, are going through major surgery and are immuno-suppressed, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in hospital must be balanced against the benefits of the transplant. When this is truly lifesaving then the balance is easier to call for clinicians and patients alike.

Some transplants are still going ahead if it is safe and appropriate to do so, with transplant clinicians assessing individual cases and the current situation in their own hospital.

Are organ donations still going ahead?

Yes, patients are still being referred for organ donation where appropriate and organs are still being retrieved where possible and offered to hospitals that are still performing transplants.

The number of people being referred for organ donation has been affected as deaths from other causes where a person could potentially be considered as an organ donor, are lower than normal because of a different pattern of admissions to ICU at this time.

Prioritising the organ donors who can help the most people will allow transplants to continue where possible and help hospitals manage their intensive care capacity.

Potential organ donors and some transplant recipients are cared for in ICU so the safety of everyone involved must be ensured.

It will take a while for organ donation to return to previous high levels.

We continue to work with transplant retrieval teams to make sure that they can get to the donor hospital to carry out the procedure to retrieve the vital donor organs.

Are some transplant units now closed?

Some transplant units have made the difficult decision to close or suspend their transplant programmes. This is to support the NHS in treating COVID-19 patients and other patients needing intensive care.

Transplants are still going ahead if it is safe and appropriate to do so, with transplant clinicians assessing individual cases and the current situation in their own hospital.

Transplant teams will also talk to patients awaiting a transplant operation and balance their need for a transplant against the additional challenges of being immuno-suppressed at this time.

Some kidney and pancreas units have suspended their transplant activity. Some kidney transplant centres have remained open, considering their more urgent patients on the waiting list, on a case by case basis.  

Lung transplant centres are open for urgent and super urgent patients. Patients will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Liver and heart transplant centres are also open for super-urgent and urgent patients, and all donor organ offers will be considered on case-by case basis for those patients most in need.

Reasons for suspension vary from unit to unit and can include critical care availability, staff shortages because key staff are working on the front line and the need to keep patients with and without COVID-19 separate.

We appreciate this is very difficult for patients awaiting a transplant. These decisions are not made lightly, the safety of transplant and other hospital patients is paramount.

We have asked that patients waiting for a transplant be contacted by their transplant unit to let them know of any changes which may affect them.

We are continuing to monitor the situation and are working closely with organisations and colleagues across the UK.

Is there a risk of COVID-19 being passed on through organ donation?

There are no confirmed cases of any form of coronavirus (COVID 19) being transmitted through organ donation.

However, every potential organ donor is being tested for COVID-19 and if someone has COVID-19 they will not be able to donate.

Although there is no known transmission of COVID-19 through organ donation, as transplant recipients have significant health problems, are going through major surgery and are immuno-suppressed, any risks are minimised as much as possible.

How is living donor transplantation affected by the pandemic?

Living donation is also affected by restrictions in individual transplant centres and non-transplanting centres due to COVID-19, which means that an individual risk versus benefit assessment is carried out on all potential recipients and their living donors in deciding whether it is safe to go ahead or not.

Local restrictions also impact on the ability for centres to work together to facilitate kidney exchanges identified in the UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme. For this reason, the scheme has been suspended for periods during the pandemic to avoid identifying transplants for people that cannot be completed or are significantly delayed.

Everyone is committed to keep the living donor programme in every centre open provided that it is safe and logistically possible. We recognise that the uncertainty is very difficult for people to cope with. The situation is kept under continuous review to ensure that disruption to patients and living donors is kept to a minimum.

Who can I contact about my transplant?

Contact your transplant unit if you have questions about an upcoming transplant or need advice.