China Performs First Lung Transplant on Coronavirus Patient, Raising Concerns About Source of Organs

March 3, 2020 Updated: March 10, 2020
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With support from government authorities, a Chinese surgeon recently conducted lung transplant surgery for a patient who was infected with the novel coronavirus.

Chinese media reports said the pair of lungs was a voluntary donation from a person who died.

Ethics and virology experts questioned whether the treatment would be effective and raised concerns that the surgery could have involved forced organ harvesting.

In a June 2019 judgment, an independent people’s tribunal in London unanimously concludedbeyond a reasonable doubt” that prisoners of conscience in China had been—and continue to be—killed for their organs “on a significant scale.”

Lung Transplants

Beijing’s government-run newspaper Beijing Daily reported on March 1 that top Chinese lung transplant specialist Chen Jingyu spent five hours and completed the first lung transplant operation for a virus patient in Wuxi city, located in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province.

The patient was a 59-year-old man who began to exhibit symptoms on Jan. 23. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Jan. 27. Days later on Feb. 7, he received a medical procedure to insert tubes into his airways.

The patient’s situation continued to deteriorate. On Feb. 22, he began receiving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment. ECMO involves using equipment outside the human body to replace the function of the lungs. It uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung and into the patient’s body.

On Feb. 24, the patient was transferred to the Wuxi Infectious Disease Hospital.

“After the [ECMO] treatment, the coronavirus diagnostic test kits continually came back negative. But the patient’s lungs were seriously damaged and could not be repaired,” the newspaper reported.

Regarding the source of the organ for transplant, it said, “The lungs were donated from a brain-dead patient. … The lungs were shipped to Wuxi from another province via a seven-hour high-speed train.”

Chen is deputy director of the Wuxi Infectious Disease Hospital. He told the Beijing Daily reporter: “The operation is very risky. Medical staff must wear protective suits, and perform the surgery in a negative air pressure operating room.”

Chen himself could not confirm that the patient was free of the novel coronavirus.

On March 1, Chen told another state-run media outlet The Paper: “The negative result of the nucleic acid test doesn’t mean that there’s no coronavirus in his lungs. So we took strict precautions when we performed the operation.”

Chen said he would propose to the central government setting up a team to perform lung transplant operations on “relatively young COVID-19 patients in critical condition, such as patients in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.”

Chinese state-run media announced on March 2 that a second lung transplant operation was performed for a COVID-19 patient at the First Affiliated Hospital of the College of Medicine, Zhejiang University, on March 1.

The patient was a 66-year-old woman who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Jan. 31 and had been receiving treatment at the hospital since Feb. 2, according to news reports. This patient also underwent ECMO treatment, but on March 1, both of her lungs failed.

The news report said the transplanted organ came from Hunan Province and was transported by airplane. The donor was reported to have been a brain-dead patient.

Han Weili, director of the hospital’s lung transplant department, performed the operation.

Media reports haven’t elaborated on the current conditions of the two transplant patients.

Questions

Chen said that transplant operations could be a solution for other COVID-19 patients whose lungs are severely damaged and whose diagnostic test results turn up negative.

But Sean Lin, a former virology researcher for the U.S. Army, said a transplant is unlikely to help treat such virus patients, as their seriously ill condition indicates that they still have the virus.

“Doing this [transplant surgery] is completely blasphemous,” Lin told The Epoch Times in a phone interview.

“From the progression of the treatments this [first lung transplant] patient received, it’s clear that his lungs, respiratory tract, and his body is full of the novel coronavirus,” Lin said, noting that the patient was transferred to an infectious disease hospital after his condition worsened, suggesting that the viral infection was serious.

Dr. Torsten Trey, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group, Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, said doing a lung transplant is an “unprecedented” approach to treating COVID-19.

“[A] lung transplant can only be considered as an option if the virus infection left scarring and permanent damage in the lung tissue,” he said in an email interview, noting that current research on COVID-19 patients has found the damage to be not as severe.

And as Chen said, it cannot be ruled out that the virus is still in the patient’s body. Thus, “transplanting a lung while the virus is still in the body would not solve the problem, as the virus would reinfect the new lung in short time,” said Trey.

After transplant surgery, the body is struggling against rejection of the new organ. Doctors usually provide immunosuppressive therapy to prevent the rejection from happening.

At that time, “there is a high risk that the infection exacerbates,” Trey said.

Meanwhile, Lin noted that the operation also brings a high infection risk to medical staff performing the surgery—as evidenced by Chen’s explanation of precautionary measures they took.

The effectiveness of diagnostic kits has been called into question by top Chinese experts, who said some patients who have the virus have been receiving negative test results.

Source of the Organs

Though Chinese media reports claimed that the lungs for both transplant surgeries came from donors, experts who have investigated the Chinese regime’s organ harvesting practices raised the alarm about the organs’ provenance.

“There is certainly the possibility that the organs used for the lung transplants were forcibly harvested from prisoners. This risk increases whenever there is an on-demand scenario where donor organs are swiftly delivered,” said Trey.

For over a decade, researchers have collected mounting evidence that the regime is killing prisoners of conscience, most of whom are practitioners of the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong, for their organs and selling them in the transplant market.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual practice consisting of meditative exercises and teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. The Chinese regime has heavily suppressed the practice since 1999. Adherents are subject to arbitrary detention, forced labor, and torture. Thousands have died in custody, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center.

Chen also said in The Paper interview that he and his team at the hospital typically perform a lung transplant every two to three days.

That kind of turnaround is extremely unusual in the West, said Trey. “This is a scale that some active experts reach over their lifetime.”

David Kilgour, former Canadian secretary of state for Asia-Pacific and a longtime researcher on the subject of forced organ harvesting, told The Epoch Times he would be “very surprised” if the organ donors for those two transplants were genuine consenting donors.

He added that independent observers should go into China to examine exactly what happened during the recent procedures.

Ethan Gutmann, a China expert who has co-authored reports with Kilgour on the subject, suggested that the state media’s publicization of these lung transplants was akin to a public relations exercise.

“These lung transplants done in record time suggests that they are open for business,” Gutmann said, noting that China’s lucrative transplant industry would have taken a hit since the outbreak began.

“I’m reading the announcements as an ad.”