‘It’s Like Groundhog Day’: Coronavirus Testing Labs Again Lack Key Supplies

Just weeks after resolving shortages in swabs, researchers are struggling to find the chemicals and plastic pieces they need to carry out coronavirus tests in the lab — leading to long waiting times.

Labs across the country are facing backlogs in coronavirus testing thanks in part to a shortage of tiny pieces of tapered plastic.

Researchers need these little disposables, called pipette tips, to quickly and precisely move liquid between vials as they process the tests.

As the number of known coronavirus cases in the United States fast approaches 4 million, these new shortages of pipette tips and other lab supplies are once again stymieing efforts to track and curb the spread of disease. Some people are waiting days or even weeks for results, and labs are vying for crucial materials.

“That’s the crazy part,” said Dr. Alexander McAdam, director of the infectious diseases diagnostic laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, one of many institutions seeking the prized pipette tips. “Whenever there’s a shortage, it’s lab versus lab, city versus city, state versus state, competing for supplies.”

Fed into automated devices, pipette tips can help researchers blaze through hundreds of coronavirus tests in a matter of hours, sparing them grueling manual labor.

The Swiss company Tecan, which supplies pipette tips for machines used by hundreds of laboratories in the United States, has been slammed with orders from U.S. customers in recent months, according to Martin Brändle, the firm’s senior vice president of corporate communications and investor relations. The demand has been so high, he said, that Tecan has tapped into an emergency stash, and is racing to install new production lines that he hopes will double the company’s output by fall.

Pipette tips aren’t the only laboratory items in short supply. Dwindling stocks of machines, containers and chemicals needed to extract or amplify the coronavirus’s genetic material have clogged almost every point along the testing workflow.

The crisis is an eerie echo of the early days of the pandemic, when researchers scrambled to find the swabs and liquids needed to collect and store samples en route to laboratories.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Scott Shone, director of the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health. “I feel like I lived this day four or five months ago.”

Pipette tips aren’t the only laboratory items in short supply. Dwindling stocks of machines, containers and chemicals needed to extract or amplify the coronavirus’s genetic material have clogged almost every point along the testing workflow.

The crisis is an eerie echo of the early days of the pandemic, when researchers scrambled to find the swabs and liquids needed to collect and store samples en route to laboratories.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Scott Shone, director of the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health. “I feel like I lived this day four or five months ago.”

In New York, researchers running low on chemicals are running machines at half capacity as test specimens pile up at the door. In Florida, where cases are spiking, labs are reporting turnaround times of seven to 10 days.

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