Organs ready for donation discarded as transplant centres close due to pandemic

Organs ready for donation are being discarded because NHS transplant centres are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was warned on Wednesday night.

A “precious resource” of kidneys and other organs for which there is a waiting list cannot be given to patients in need because surgery has been restricted due to pressures elsewhere in the NHS.

Doctors and MPs on Wednesday night called for all operations to resume immediately as specialists said that they were confident that patient safety was not compromised by Covid-19.

According to information for clinicians, of the 23 kidney transplant centres across the UK seven are currently closed for transplants from deceased donors and six for transplants from living donors. Others are limiting the number of patients that they see because of the pandemic.

Of the eight liver donation centres, the Royal Free Hospital in London is closed whilst three other centres are closed to all but “super urgent” cases on an individual basis. Three of the UK’s nine pancreas transplant centres are closed.

All paediatric and Cardio-thoracic centres were still operating Wednesday, although one of the latter was limited to “urgent and super urgent” cases.

The centre at Belfast City Hospital has been closed since October for all patients but "once in a lifetime" matches.

Dr Aisling Courtney, a transplant nephrologist at the hospital, said that they had remained open during the first lockdown and they were confident that transplants could be carried out safely.

Number of organ transplants performed in the UK

Calling for operations to resume, she told The Telegraph: “Deceased donor organs are a very time-limited but very precious resource, there are always more people waiting for an organ then there are transplants.”

Those centres that had closed during the current surge had done so because of “logistical restrictions” rather than concern of the safety of the procedures, she said.

It is understood that around half of organ donations come from patients who are deceased, whilst the rest are from living people who have matched with the patient, often a relative, and are willing to give up an organ.

When a donor who is on the register dies, NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) looks at where the organ is needed most and sends it to that centre. If they cannot take it another match will be identified.

But if a recipient for the organ cannot be found within a matter of hours then it cannot be used.

A spokesperson for NHSBT stressed that in that instance the organ would not be removed from the donor’s body as the operation does not take place until a recipient is confirmed.

Dr Courtney said that even for those receiving an organ from a living donor timing is important and she knows of people during the pandemic who “lost their opportunity because they became too unwell to be transplanted”.

Ian Paisley, the DUP MP for North Antrim, told MPs on Wednesday that he was “horrified” that “a number of human kidneys have been discarded” due to the pause on surgery in the pandemic but his call for a debate on the issue was rejected.

He told The Telegraph: “The key thing is that these operations have to be started again. These are precious organs that should not be wasted and secondly there is great need for them.”

Official figures show that between 2019 and 2020 the number of organs transplanted dropped by just over 20 per cent.

John Forsythe, medical director of organ donation and transplantation for NHSBT, said that it was a “challenging and intense area of NHS work, where time is critical” and coronavirus “has brought additional, unprecedented challenges” but they had “plans in place to continue with deceased organ donation and transplant activity as much as possible”.

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