The US faces yet one more pandemic scarcity, this time in laboratory gear: NPR

Scientific laboratories across the country are running out of critical equipment. Our Planet Money team has investigated what is behind the supply shortage.

NOEL KÖNIG, HOST:

Scientific laboratories across the country are running out of critical equipment.

Sally Herships of the Planet Money team asked why?

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Monica Tomaszewski is a scientist in a research laboratory in Pittsburgh. She researches drugs against rare genetic diseases. And she uses all kinds of fancy high-tech devices, even robots. But right now, one of their biggest stumbling blocks is the lack of super-simple lab supplies. The shortage in Monica’s laboratory is so great that they protect what they have.

MONICA TOMASZEWSKI: We have a colleague who has what we call stash, several boxes of different kinds of things that are under a laboratory bench that you actually have to crawl under.

HERSHIPS: For example on your hands and knees?

TOMASZEWSKI: Yes.

HERSHIPS: Monica’s stash is mostly full of these tubes. They are called pipettes. They are basically straws. And you can use them to draw liquid from one tube and add it to another. They come in different sizes and you need the right one. Otherwise it could be too thin.

TOMASZEWSKI: Or they’re too short, which means we’re not getting to the bottom of the thing we’re trying to get the liquid out of.

HERSHIPS: And scientists in laboratories across the country often use hundreds and hundreds a day. Not being the right size can slow down your work or stop it altogether. The problem started in Monica’s lab last summer when pipettes were really hard to find. One of her colleagues asked for an offer back in January.

TOMASZEWSKI: And they shouldn’t be in our lab until June.

HERSHIPS: But all kinds of plastic lab supplies are in short supply now – gloves, petri dishes, even the robots that use them can be reordered for months. Prices are exploding.

So instead of spending your time on science (ph), spend your time shopping online.

TOMASZEWSKI: Yes.

HERSHIPS: Gabe Howell works with a medium-sized laboratory supply retailer in San Francisco. He says there are many reasons for the shortage.

GABE HOWELL: The perfect storm, so to speak (laughter), if you want to put it that way.

HERSHIPS: He’s not talking metaphorically here – an actual storm that left large parts of Texas and a number of chemical plants there – the kind that make plastic – with no electricity, causing a utility problem. There are also delivery delays. When ships dock, he says, they often have to be quarantined before unloading.

Howell: We had a ship that came into Long Beach. And I think it was in port for two weeks, just waiting to be unloaded. And there was nothing we could do about it.

HERSHIPS: These quarantines apply because of the pandemic, which is also affecting other parts of the supply chain. Corning, which makes tubes and vials and other lab supplies, says one of the biggest slowdowns is the U.S. Defense Manufacturing Act, which prioritizes supplies for COVID testing.

HOWELL: Each COVID test uses an average of four pipette tips. And we do millions and millions a day.

HERSHIPS: And back in her lab, Monica the scientist says she understands. She is a trained virologist. She knows how much work and research there is in viruses and how important vaccines are. But the drugs she’s working on are for rare disease patients. There are no cures yet. And she can see her perspective too.

TOMASZEWSKI: I am pleased that these researchers are getting everything they need. But we never closed either. So we’re currently working through what’s available. And it is also important for us to move forward.

HERSHIPS: But now she has to wait.

Sally Herships, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MOKHOV’S “NORMAL WAY”)

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