COVID-19: ASTCT provides interim guidelines for transplantation

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Dealing with COVID-19

There is emerging data regarding coinfection of SARS-CoV-2 with other viruses including infleunza. Immunocompromised hosts, especially transplantation and cellular therapy (TCT) recipients, are known to frequently have more than one pathogen present, especially in pulmonary infections. As the community spread increases, it would be reasonable to obtain concomitant testing for respiratory viruses along with SARS-CoV-2 as recommended. In addition, viral infection can cause secondary bacterial and fungal infections (especially Aspergillus). In the presence of SARS-CoV-2, where it is recommended to avoid bronchoalveolar lavage, we have to keep a high clinical suspicion based on patients’ risk factors.

Dr. Zainab Shahid of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Dr. Zainab Shahid

Based on the latest studies, remdesivir is looking like a promising therapeutic option to treat SARS-CoV-2 infection and is currently available in the United States under a clinical trial and by obtaining an emergency investigational new drug usage. Favipiravir, another antiviral, showed early viral clearance and radiographic improvement in mild cases of COVID-19, but is currently unavailable in the United States. Whereas lopinavir/ritonavir should no longer be first line agents based on the latest data published in The New England Journal of Medicine that showed its lack of efficacy.

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) caused by an intense inflammatory response is the main cause of death in COVID-19. Early reports on the use of tocilizumab (an IL-6 receptor blocker) for ARDS to block cytokine mediated injury to the lung should be a consideration early in the course of COVID-19 pneumonitis, especially in setting of high risk for ARDS mortality.

We are considering other IL-6–blocking agents like siltuximab in case of a shortage of tocilizumab while centers scramble to get these agents. It is important to note that any such usages for COVID-19 would be considered off-label.

TCT candidates should of course be practicing social distancing in days leading to transplant to reduce their risk of exposure regardless of state or federal recommendations. Household members of TCT candidates should practice similar caution because transmission has been reported by asymptomatic individuals.

Zainab Shahid, MD, is the medical director of Bone Marrow Transplant Infectious Diseases at the Levine Cancer Institute/Atrium Health and a clinical associate professor of medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She reported that she had no relevant disclosures.


The American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy (ASTCT) has released interim guidelines for the care of hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT) and cellular therapy patients in the light of the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

The guidelines, summarized briefly below, focus on diagnostic and treatment considerations, evaluation of patients prior to initializing HCT and cellular therapy, and cell donor evaluation. Much of the guideline relies upon recommendations developed by the European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (ESBMT). These guidelines were updated on March 16.

The ASTCT document focuses on patient-treatment specifics and does not cover specific infection-prevention policies and procedures, instead suggesting that local and institutional guidelines, such as those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, should be followed. They did recommend that, in the local presence of COVID-19, “clinic visits that are not critical should be either deferred or substituted with telemedicine visits if deemed appropriate and feasible.”

Diagnostic considerations

In any patient with upper or lower respiratory symptoms, obtain polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for SARS-CoV-2, where possible, in addition to other respiratory virus PCR testing from any respiratory sample obtained, following CDC recommendations for sample collection and processing, which are continuously being updated on the CDC website.

These recommendations include nasal sampling, rather than oral sampling, and the discouraging of nasal washes where avoidable. If nasal washing is performed, it should be done with appropriate personal protective equipment as described by the CDC. The CDC has also provided additional infection prevention and control information for known and suspected COVID-19 patients in health care settings.

In patients positive for SARS-CoV-2 in an upper respiratory tract sample, chest imaging should be considered.

Preliminary reports suggest that there may be a discrepancy between upper- and lower-tract specimen positivity. Therefore, even when SARS-CoV-2 is not detected in an upper respiratory sample, the ASTCT recommends that chest imaging should be considered for lower respiratory tract infection when clinical symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection are present, including shortness of breath, hypoxia, and tachypnea.

With regard to routine bronchoalveolar lavage, the ASTCT recommends against it if a patient tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 given the risk of transmission among health care workers. The exception is in the case of suspected coinfection based on abnormal chest imaging and in patients for whom it is clinically indicated (for example, those receiving invasive mechanical ventilation). In addition to testing bronchoalveolar lavage samples for SARS-CoV-2, “copathogens should be evaluated and treated.”


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