A growing number of medical facilities across the country are directing coveted organ donations to patients who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, pushing people who remain unvaccinated down or even off of transplantation waitlists.
The thinking behind this move is simple: with transmission of the pandemic coronavirus still high in the US, unvaccinated transplant candidates face an extremely high risk of COVID-19, which poses a danger to them and imperils the usefulness of the scarce, life-saving organs.
Receiving a transplanted organ requires patients to take immunosuppressant drugs that will prevent their bodies from rejecting the new organ as foreign. But this immune suppression also makes the recipients highly susceptible to becoming infected with the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and developing severe COVID-19. Some experts estimate that transplant recipients’ risk of dying from COVID-19 is as high as 20 to 30 percent.
Odds of survival have long been factored into prioritizing who will get donated organs. And requiring vaccinations against devastating infectious diseases is also standard. Organ recipients are already generally required to be vaccinated against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza, and tetanus, among other diseases.
Still, COVID-19 vaccines, which are newly approved by the Food and Drug Administration, are fresh to the lists. On August 13, the American Society of Transplantation and the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT) released a joint statement recommending that “all solid organ transplant recipients should be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2,” as should “all eligible household and close contacts” of those recipients. More and more transplant programs are adopting the policy—but not yet all.