When 50-year-old Heidi Ferrer died after battling COVID for more than a year, husband Nick Guthe wanted to donate her body to science. However, the hospital overruled him because Ferrer had signed up to become an organ donor. That made little sense to him, Guthe tells the New York Times. Wouldn't it be unsafe to give somebody the organs of a COVID patient? The answer to that question turns out to be a complicated one, writes Roni Caryn Rabin for the newspaper. As it turns out, "there is no universally accepted set of recommendations regarding when organs can be safely recovered from virus-positive bodies and transplanted to patients in need," writes Rabin.
Generally, organs from donors who test negative for the virus are given the green light, even if those patients once had the virus. But things get especially complicated in cases involving "long COVID," in which patients (as with Ferrer) continue to battle debilitating symptoms for months or longer after the initial diagnosis. Often these patients test negative for COVID, but it's still not clear if the virus might be lurking somewhere in their bodies, perhaps in the very organs that might be donated. Ongoing research is trying to figure all this out, and transplant organizations are taking different approaches in the meantime.
"This is sort of uncharted territory," says Dr. Jennifer D. Possick of the Yale School of Medicine, who specializes in treating patients with long COVID. Part of the difficult calculation is that a would-be organ recipient might be on the brink of death—is it then ethical to deprive them of a kidney from COVID patient? In Ferrer's case, her kidneys went to two patients with end-stage kidney disease, and no other organs were transplanted. "Heidi was a very giving person, but she would not have wanted this," says her husband. "We need to create guidelines for what is safe and what isn’t." Read the full story. (Read more organ transplants stories.)