Few aspects of life have been unchanged by the pandemic. While some effects, such as last spring’s shortages of toilet paper, flour, and grocery delivery slots, are now a thing of the past, backorders of lab supplies continue to this day. Researchers are paying more and waiting longer for items such as gloves, pipet tips, and reagents due to their use in testing for SARS-CoV-2, eating through funds and slowing research. The problem is so acute that some researchers say they’re concerned about hitting the milestones needed to advance their careers.
“My biggest fear as a junior assistant professor right now is that we’re going to lose a lot of people from this generation of science. . . . There’s going to be a lot of people in my cohort of assistant professors who just aren’t going to make it as a result of this,” says Stephanie Grainger, whose lab at San Diego State University studies signaling in stem cells. “It’s heartbreaking and scary.”
How the pandemic causes shortages
Kai te Kaat, the vice president for life sciences program management at QIAGEN, says the problem dates back to the beginning of the pandemic. “I don’t know of any company that has products that are halfway related to COVID testing that did not experience a tremendous surge in demand that overwhelmed absolutely the manufacturing capacities that were in place,” he tells The Scientist. The shortages also affected research products that aren’t themselves used in testing but share components with testing supplies, he adds.
That aligns with Grainger’s challenges getting “anything made of plastic—so, dishes for culturing cells, pipette tips, which we use for essentially everything in the lab, tubes, which we also use for essentially everything in the lab,” she says, plus large pipettes known serological pipettes and reagents for PCR. Beyond COVID-19 testing, vaccination drives, which require refrigerators and ultra-cold freezers for storage, also appear to be behind some of the shortages. “It’s hard for a lot of new faculty to even be able to store the reagents that they do have, because they can’t get their hands on even a household fridge or freezer right now,” Grainger says.
Isabelle Miousse, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who studies epigenetics and cancer, similarly tells The Scientist in an email that she decided to buy a –80 °C freezer last fall at around the same time she learned that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept in such freezers. “I am really happy that we have a vaccine, and Pfizer is actually the one I received myself. But gee, we placed the order somewhere in January and I am not expecting the freezer to be delivered before the summer,” she writes.
Shortages take a toll
For some labs, the effect of such shortages goes far beyond inconvenience. Evangelia Bellas, a bioengineering researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia, says her lab needs personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks to work safely even under nonpandemic conditions, and when those items became hard to get last year, “things were not getting done at the same level, because we didn’t have access to standard PPE, even at the start.” When members of the lab were unable to get PPE from their usual suppliers, they found alternatives, but the prices were three to five times higher, Bellas says—and the orders still took months to come in.
Beyond PPE issues, Bellas says her lab had just a few assays left to complete a dataset they wanted to submit as a paper for a special issue, which had a deadline in February of this year. But their PCR machine broke, and it took months to get a calibration kit to fix it, as well as PCR plates. Trying to use other labs’ PCR instruments presented its own headaches due to COVID-19–related restrictions, and in the end, they had to submit the paper without the assays. “Something that would normally take us half a day to do took us probably four-plus months to get resolved, and at a much higher cost than it would normally cost us.”
In metastasis researcher Julio Aguirre-Ghiso’s lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, basic supplies such as gloves and pipette tips cost several times more than they did before the pandemic, leaving fewer funds for other supplies needed for high-quality research, lab members say. “We want to spend more money on the very specific reagents which make our experiments more clean, more informative,” explains postdoc Deepak Singh. “Rather [than] spending there, we are spending more money on the essential things, like daily use things.” Melisa Lopez-Anton, another postdoc in Aguirre-Ghiso’s lab, adds that the extra time needed to shop around for supplies also leaves less time for research.
“You just spend a lot more time being sure you’re absolutely on top of inventory in the lab,” says Anthony Berndt, a synthetic biology postdoc at the University of California, San Diego. “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.”
Bone metastasis researcher Patricia Juárez of the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education in Mexico says that due to customs and other red tape around imports, researchers in her country were already accustomed to planning for around four- to six-week-long delays between ordering supplies and receiving them, and to paying hefty tariffs on top of the sticker prices. Since the pandemic began, she says, that’s gotten worse, with 10- to 12-week delays. At one point, she learned it would take six months to receive a kit she needed for a specialized assay.
My biggest fear as a junior assistant professor right now is that we’re going to lose a lot of people from this generation of science.—Stephanie Grainger, San Diego State University
Juárez says she’s heard from companies’ representatives that part of the problem is that manufacturers are reducing their output of certain reagents unrelated to COVID-19 due to a lack of demand. In addition, customs has reduced staffing compared with its pre-pandemic levels, so delays at the border have increased.
Temple University’s Bellas says the delays and cost increases are particularly hard on pre-tenure faculty such as herself, who tend not to be as well-funded as more established researchers. “What do you do when you’re on a limited budget, and still need to pay people, but we know we can’t get the same research out of it?”
Between the shortages and social distancing limitations on access to the lab, “I think the junior people, especially junior assistant professors, are going to be really disproportionately impacted by this for probably a decade,” predicts Grainger, as their inability to generate data at the expected rate will make it difficult for them to compete for grants. “The students are also suffering. . . . They’re paying tuition to stay in a program longer than they should have to because of all this. And they might end up graduating with less expertise than maybe their colleagues the year before or the year before that, because they just haven’t had access to the same plethora of supplies and experiences that others have.”
Manufacturing ramps up
In addition to planning ahead and shopping around, researchers who spoke with The Scientist have come up with a number of workarounds for dealing with the shortages, such as bartering with other labs or simply borrowing their overstock, and ordering the same thing from multiple suppliers to see which will arrive first. Altynay Narmanova, an administrator in Aguirre-Ghiso’s lab, says she suspects that, as with the impulse to stockpile toilet paper last spring, some of these practices could be making the problem worse. “Every time we do have access—we know that something is currently in stock—we order extra of that item to just have some stock,” she explains.
Suppliers say they’ve made adjustments to try to keep up with demand. QIAGEN’s te Kaat says that, unusually for plants in Germany, the company’s manufacturing lines there are now running around the clock, 365 days a year, and that with help from suppliers last year, it managed to get a new line running to produce spin columns in its existing facility in Maryland in about six months, where 12 to 15 months would typically be considered fast for such a project. In terms of keeping up with demand, “since the [start] of the year, from our perspective, we are relatively back to normal for the products that lie completely outside of the COVID portfolio,” te Kaat says, although he says customers may still be experiencing some hiccups.
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the entire life science industry has seen unprecedented demand for Covid-19 related products and we are working 24/7 to meet this increased demand for these products and as well as those used in scientific discovery,” writes Rachel Baglin, a spokesperson for MilliporeSigma, in an email to The Scientist. “These measures include facility expansions, customer prioritization and increasing the number of our upstream suppliers.”
Juárez, who did her postdoc in the US and collaborates with US researchers, says she hopes a silver lining of the shortage will be to give scientists in developed countries some understanding of what it’s like to work under the conditions that researchers in Latin America experience during normal times. “We put a lot of effort into quality research,” but sometimes can’t produce results as quickly as scientists in other countries do, she says. “I think that sometimes people should try to take a look at what are the conditions that others are working [under].”