Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, a toilet paper shortage rattled shoppers and led to aggressive stockpiling and an increased interest in alternatives like bidets. Now, a similar crisis is affecting scientists in the lab: a shortage of disposable, sterile plastic products, especially pipette tips, Sally Herships and David Gura report for NPR’s The Indicator.
Pipette tips are a vital tool for moving specific quantities of liquid around in the lab. Research and testing related to Covid-19 spurred a huge demand for plastics, but the causes of the plastics shortage go beyond a spike in demand. Factors from severe weather to personnel shortages have overlapped at many levels of the supply chain to interfere with the production of basic lab supplies.
And scientists have a hard time imagining what research might look like without pipette tips.
“The idea of being able to do science without them is laughable,” says Octant Bio lab manager Gabrielle Bostwick to STAT News’ Kate Sheridan.
Pipette tips are like turkey basters that are shrunk down to just a few inches long. Instead of a rubber bulb at the end that is squeezed and released to suck up liquid, pipette tips attach to a micropipette apparatus that the scientist can set to pick up a specific volume of liquid, usually measured in microliters. Pipette tips come in different sizes and styles for different tasks, and scientists normally use a new tip for each sample in order to prevent contamination.
For every Covid-19 test, scientists use four pipette tips, Gabe Howell, who works at a lab supply distributor in San Diego, tells NPR. And the United States alone is running millions of these tests each day, so the roots of the current plastic supply shortage stretches back to early in the pandemic.
“I don’t know of any company that has products that are halfway related to [Covid-19] testing that did not experience a tremendous surge in demand that overwhelmed absolutely the manufacturing capacities that were in place,” says Kai te Kaat, vice president for life sciences program management at QIAGEN, to Shawna Williams at the Scientist magazine.
Scientists conducting all kinds of research, including genetics, bioengineering, newborn diagnostic screenings and rare diseases, rely on pipette tips for their work. But the supply shortage has slowed some work down by months, and the time spent on tracking inventory cuts into time spent doing research.
“You just spend a lot more time being sure you’re absolutely on top of inventory in the lab,” says University of California, San Diego synthetic biologist Anthony Berndt to the Scientist magazine. “We’re spending pretty much every other day quickly checking the stockroom, making sure that we have everything and planning at least six to eight weeks ahead.”
The supply chain issue goes beyond the surge in demand for plastics that followed the Covid-19 pandemic. When winter storm Uri hit Texas in February, power outages hit manufacturing plants that create polypropylene resin, the raw material for plastic pipette tips, which has in turn led to a smaller supply of the tips, reports STAT News.
Distribution has also been impacted. Pandemic-related precautions require ships to quarantine when they reach a port, and products are delayed at customs because staffing was reduced to allow social distancing, per the Scientist.
“I've heard there's delays in finding shipping containers, even,” says Howell to NPR. “We had a ship that arrived in Long Beach. And it sat in port for, I believe, two weeks just waiting to get unloaded. And there was nothing we could do about it.”
The shortage of pipette tips has meant that scientists have to come up with their own day-to-day solutions, in some cases washing and re-using pipette tips or running tests in batches, reports STAT News. In cases where avoiding contamination is extremely important, researchers have to ration their pipette tips, or collaborate with colleagues in other labs to share supplies until the next shipment arrives.
“If you’re not paying attention to what’s running out, you could very easily run out of things,” says Danielle de Jong, a lab manager in the Whitney Laboratory at the University of Florida, to STAT News. “I’ve been working in a lab for 21 years. I’ve never encountered supply chain issues like this. Ever.”