Scientists from around the world are splurging to secure basic supplies in the wake of epidemics, which has led to increased demand for test materials, disrupting manufacturing and distribution channels.
The lack of gloves, plastic tips for pipettes, centrifuge tubes and other laboratory basics has slowed or even stopped projects, but researchers say. “We were calling around and looking for a solution,” says Sebastian Rowe, a PhD student in Chemical Biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration’s Device Shortage List, there is a shortage of gloves, micropipettes, pipette tips, and other supplies for the public health emergency period”.
Boundary closures, quarantine, and a steep drop in shipping by sea and air have slowed delivery of a variety of supplies and equipment, including some that are not directly related to treatment or testing.
In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service is warning of supply issues with products including gloves, pipette tips, and refrigerators. In the case of one type of surgical glove, the shortage has been reported to “increase demand in recent months, decrease production or delay packaging or sterilization”.
According to a December report by the US International Trade Commission, worldwide glove demand exceeded nearly 200 billion by the end of 2020. In a demonstration of the far-reaching effects of the epidemic, one of the world’s largest producers, Demonstration Shah Alam-based Malaysian company Top Glove, had to temporarily close some of its factories due to an outbreak of among workers.
Shortage of animals
Some labs are reporting disruptions in the supply of laboratory animals. American pharmaceutical companies in particular are scrambling to find rhesus monkeys. The increase in demand for vaccine testing and the shortage caused by the ban on the loading of wildlife from China has led some research projects to call for and motivate calls to maintain reserve supplies of animals.
NASCO Education, a scientific and educational supplies company based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, is outselling the sale of living African clawed frogs (Exnopus), which are used in the study of developmental biology.
Company spokesman Lori Jacoby explains that orders were placed during the lockdown, making it less financially possible for frogs to continue. The company has no plans to return to the live-frog business, but will continue to sell the animals until its current supply stops, which it says may be several months.
Rowe says that after coming back to the lab in June 2020, product shortages have been an issue since the lockdown of a few months. The supply shortage has changed how the laboratory conducts experiments.
Before running through the box of pipette tips on an assay, a researcher may first spend an extra day doing a pilot test to see if the assay is likely to work. “You have to be better at planning your experiments,” Rowe says.
Victoria Forster, a cancer researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, got into trouble in September when she did not find proper pipette tips or plastic plates for upcoming stem cell experiments. As she points out, only a few tips will fit some pipette, making it difficult to find alternatives.
She says that waiting for the supply overtook her for about six weeks. “I’ve worked in the UK and Canada, and [before the epidemic] I’ve never had to wait more than a day or two for these kinds of things,” she says. “I can’t start my experiment until I know that I have everything I need.”
Supply shortages in Africa have also affected laboratories, says Evelyn Gitou, director of research capacity reinforcement at the African population and the Health Research Center in Nairobi. In some cases, researchers have tried with alternative products, often with poor results. “There is a proliferation of substandard lab equipment and laboratory consumables,” she says. “It’s the opposite. If you’re going to send me a pip that isn’t suitable for this purpose, you can cancel the entire one I’m using.”
The breakdown of African countries’ scientific supply chains reduces the risk of relying on countries outside the continent for equipment, Gitau says. If Kenya can improve its own manufacturing standards, she says, researchers there will not have to depend on supplies from the United States or Europe. “If I’m working with the virus right now, I won’t wear a mask from Kenya,” she says. “Our Bureau of Standards is not doing the work it should, so we have to start pushing.”
Gitou says the supply crisis may be an opportunity for countries to rethink their dependence on foreign suppliers. She points out that Kenya can start by using abundant local resources.