The Weakest Link: How Supply Chain Shortages Are Creating Challenges at the Bench

COVID-19 has impacted the healthcare world for almost two years now, but the aftershocks continue to ripple outward. As factories slowly reopen and scientists return to their labs, the lack of materials needed for research is slowing down science.

We are still assessing the total impact the COVID-19 pandemic had around the globe. Beyond the human toll, the damaging ripples on business sectors such as travel, entertainment, and healthcare are still reverberating as we approach the two-year mark of the first shutdowns of March 2020. Medical research laboratories have also been in impacted in countless of ways, including how lab managers have altered their supply purchases and budget spending.

“Supply chain issues seem to be popping up everywhere from the grocery store to the car sales lot!” says Joy Wu, MD, PhD, vice chair, Basic and Translational Science, Department of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, Calif., adding that she is starting to notice the supply chain problems in her lab as well as seemingly random supplies are suddenly difficult to find. “For example, we have had trouble locating Eppendorf tubes, which we use for everything from isolating RNA to performing PCR genotyping of our mice.”

Wu adds that her husband, also a physician-scientist, and his laboratory have had a hard time ordering pipette tips and certain reagents and media used in cell cultures. 

In its 2021 Purchasing Trends Survey, Lab Manager examined how the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the course of their readers’ laboratory purchases. Survey responders included mostly managers or supervisors working in small- to medium-sized labs — with more than 40% of those labs belonging to larger institutions, with more than 1,000 people. The trends revealed where most respondents spent money differently in the past year:

  • 42.3% said they are stockpiling supplies and reagents
  • 61.26% are purchasing additional safety equipment and PPE
  • 41.08% plan to restructure the lab space to allow for more physical distancing
  • 20.90% were investing in software to accommodate employees’ remote work

Many of the survey respondents (38%) felt that the past year’s pandemic has negatively impacted their business conditions. And while stockpiling supplies and purchasing additional safety equipment are unplanned budget challenges, lab managers are dealing with the even bigger challenges of actually finding the supplies to stock their labs. Stockpiling of supplies have even made it worst in some areas.

Supply Chain Woes

Global supply chain shortages have impacted healthcare in the U.S. extremely hard, and labs around the country are not immune. Everything from chemicals, pipettes, and glove boxes to hundreds of drugs in hospital pharmacies are in short supply.

“Our university closes to deliveries over the winter break, and failure to deliver CO2 and/or liquid nitrogen before the closure would have caused major disruptions to the lab. Thankfully both were eventually delivered in time, but we were starting to think about contingency plans.”

Joy Wu, MD, PhD, vice chair, Basic and Translational Science, Department of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, Calif.

Taylor Lofton, research technician in the Stan Andrisse Lab at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., says supply issues hit their lab earlier in the pandemic as they tried to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE), especially gloves. “The items that are in short supply now are pipette tips especially smaller tips,” she says. “We have ordered tips from multiple scientific companies as far back as April 2021 and the orders are still on back order until this day with no estimated restock date and no alternatives.”

Lofton adds that the majority of the experiments her lab performs require the use of measuring small quantities “and since we have not been able to receive tips, we have had to be very mindful of the number of experiments we do and how many tips we have left. Luckily, we have been able to borrow tips from another lab to continue our research.”

One important supply bottleneck was shared in late October when the CEO of ResMed, the San Diego-based company that creates ventilators, sleep apnea machines, and other respiratory equipment, sounded another alarm. He pleaded with makers of semiconductor chips to prioritize providing the scarce electronic component to medical devices ahead of “another cellphone, another electric car, another cloud-connected refrigerator.”

In addition to ResMed’s products, the semiconductor chip technology is used in a variety of medical equipment that impact the lives of millions of patients who depend on chip-powered equipment and devices, including:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Blood pressure monitors
  • Glucose, ECG, and EEG monitors
  • Implantable pacemakers
  • Applications for clinical diagnostics

A huge problem with supplying the shortage of the semiconductors, however, is that manufacturing of the chips is now concentrated in Taiwan, South Korea, and China. Just 12% are manufactured in U.S. factories, a sharp decline in the last decade or so. Getting shipments from Asian countries is yet another catastrophe of the pandemic.

Shipping Container Woes

The disruptions started at the beginning of the pandemic. Factories where a lot of the world’s manufacturing capacity are located — China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Germany — shuttered their doors or cut production way back. When demands for supplies skyrocketed, the problems of getting shipping container ships to their destinations began.

Images of huge container ships from China and other Asian ports sitting in traffic jams off the California coast waiting to dock are major news stories. And the average container ship can hold about 14,000 containers, so a huge supply of merchandise is not moving.

There has also been a huge jump in shipping costs that have crippled the supply chain. Businesses just can afford to restock their shelves. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, shipping a container from southern China to the U.S. west coast cost about $3,000, according to an October Forbes article. That same container now costs as much as $20,000 to ship — an enormous jump of more than 650%.  And once the containers do make it into port, the nationwide shortage of truck drivers makes it a crisis for clearing the docks and moving the supplies to where they are needed most.

“The items that are in short supply now are pipette tips especially smaller tips. We have ordered tips from multiple scientific companies as far back as April 2021 and the orders are still on back order until this day with no estimated restock date and no alternatives.”

Taylor Lofton, research technician, Stan Andrisse Lab, Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, D.C.

Industry experts say fixing the supply and demand woes will take time. Most predict that the shortages of medical supplies, such as semiconductors, will last well into the end of 2022. Long-term planning and ordering early may be the best way to cope in the meantime.

Wu admits that so far, supply chain issues have been relatively minor inconveniences for her lab, adding that recently her team had a scare when both CO2 and liquid nitrogen were backordered. “Our university closes to deliveries over the winter break, and failure to deliver CO2 and/or liquid nitrogen before the closure would have caused major disruptions to the lab,” she explains. “Thankfully both were eventually delivered in time, but we were starting to think about contingency plans.” 

—Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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