High demand and supply chain disruptions fuel shortage of essential laboratory materials


In front of growing demand for COVID-19 testing supplies and events such as storms and border closures disrupting the plastic supply chain, research labs across the country are operating low on critical plastic laboratory materials such as pipette tips, gloves, and centrifuge tubes.

The nationwide shortage of pipette tips has trickled down to Cornell’s lab benches, where dwindling stocks have pushed researchers to adapt. Through creativity and collaboration, many Cornell researchers have been able to overcome shortages and avoid serious obstacles to their research.

Pipette tips are some of the most essential laboratory equipment, used to dispense liquids while preventing cross contamination. Because pipette tips can only be used once, laboratories can cycle through multiple boxes of pipette tips per day, with each box containing approximately 96 tips. As a result, a laboratory’s supply of pipette tips must be constantly replenished in order for research experiments to run smoothly.

For Julie Sahler, a research associate in microbiology and immunology in Prof. Avery August’s lab, adjusting to the shortage of pipette tips has meant relying on other labs to exchange vital research materials.

“Cornell is a very collaborative community, and one of our collaborating labs had additional advice they could spare us,” Sahler said. “We had excess Petri dishes that they could use, so we could swap them out.”

According to list of medical device shortages Posted by the United States Food and Drug Administration, personal protective equipment and testing supplies are among the materials currently in high demand due to COVID-19 health needs for testing and treatment.

With backup supplies running out, labs scrambled to order more. But for some essential equipment, the shipping date can be several months or even a year away.

“I noticed that [pipette tips] were overdue quite substantially. I had received an order saying it wouldn’t come in until 2022, ”said Amie Redko, research support specialist in the August lab.

But for campus labs, pipette tips aren’t the only materials in short supply.

According to Professor Jan Lammerding, Biomedical Engineering, even supplies related to non-COVID testing and other plastic items are out of stock – including centrifuge tubes used to separate solids from liquids, cryotubes used to freeze cells and cellular reagents, which are mixtures used for chemical analysis. .

These supply shortages are the downstream effects of other supply chain disruptions, such as border closures and limited shipments by air and sea – this could contribute to this material delay.

With the pressure on plastic and sterile supplies, disruptions at plastic manufacturing sites have only worsened the shortage.

In February, Winter storm Uri in Texas, forced ExxonMobil and other companies to temporarily shut down factories, severing a crucial link in the pipette supply chain. Texas, one of the largest plastics exporters and other petrochemicals, is also home to two of ExxonMobil’s three largest polyethylene plants, producing the clear plastic polymer commonly used in packaging materials, toys and pipette tips. With a major plastics manufacturing center disrupted, the production of plastic laboratory materials has become even more strained.

These events worsened to produce this massive shortage of pipette tips – an unprecedented circumstance for many researchers like Redko.

“I’ve been here for 11 years and had antibodies and other supplies that were out of stock, but not in terms of plastics,” Redko said.

For some labs, excess backup supplies allowed their research to continue, while others had to be more creative to adapt.

The exchange of equipment with other laboratories, the collaboration with many suppliers and the flexibility of ordering different equipment has allowed the laboratories to continue despite the shortage, Lammerding said.

On the Cornell campus, the Business continuity plan – which set guidelines for supply shortages at the start of the pandemic in April 2020 – also helped labs obtain disinfectants and gloves when supplies were out of stock, Redko said.

As long as it is not clear How long will the shortages last, government agencies are stepping in to fund the restoration of plastic supply chains needed for laboratory equipment.

In December, Corning, one of the world’s largest producers of laboratory equipment, received $ 15 million from the US Department of Defense to manufacture an additional 684 million pipette tips each year at its plant in Durham, North Carolina. Tecan, a Swiss company that produces laboratory equipment, also received $ 32 million under the CARES Act Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to build new pipette tip manufacturing lines, and these projects are expected to begin manufacturing pipette tips from fall 2021.

Until then, labs are adjusting to these supply shortages, moving forward to push the boundaries of research.

“Overall we’re still lucky to be able to do our job,” said Lammerding.


About Catherine Sturm

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