In the face of increased demand for COVID-19 testing supplies and events like storms and border closures disrupting the plastic supply chain, research labs across the country are running low on crucial plastic lab materials such as pipette tips, gloves and centrifuge tubes.
The national pipette tip shortage has trickled down to lab benches at Cornell, where dwindling supplies have pushed researchers to adapt. Through creativity and collaboration, many Cornell researchers were able to navigate the shortages and avoid severe roadblocks to their research.
Pipette tips are some of the most essential pieces of lab equipment, used to dispense liquids while preventing cross-contamination. Because pipette tips can only be used once, labs can go through several boxes of pipette tips in a day, with each box holding about 96 tips. As a result, a lab’s supply of pipette tips needs to be constantly replenished to run research experiments smoothly.
For Julie Sahler, a microbiology and immunology research associate in Prof. Avery August’s lab, adapting to the pipette tip shortage has meant leaning on other labs to exchange essential research materials.
“Cornell is a very collaborative community, and one of our collaborating labs had excess tips that they could spare us,” Sahler said. “We had excess Petri dishes that they could use, so we could trade.”
According to the medical device shortage list posted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, personal protective equipment and testing supplies are among the materials currently in high demand due to COVID-19 health needs for testing and treatment.
With backup supplies running low, labs have scrambled to order more. But for some essential equipment, the shipment date can be months or even a year away.
“I noticed that [pipette tips] were backordered quite substantially. I had gotten one order that said it wouldn’t come in until 2022,” said Amie Redko, a research support specialist in August’s lab.
But for labs across campus, pipette tips aren’t the only materials in short supply.
According to Prof. Jan Lammerding, biomedical engineering, even non-COVID testing related supplies and other plasticware are on backorder — including centrifuge tubes used to separate solids from liquids, cryotubes used to freeze cells and cell reagents, which are mixtures used for chemical analysis.
These supply shortages are downstream effects of other disruptions to supply chains — such as border closures and limited air and boat shipments — that could be contributing to this backorder of equipment.
With the strain on plastic and sterile supplies, disruptions in plastic manufacturing sites have only made the shortage worse.
In February, Winter Storm Uri in Texas forced ExxonMobil and other companies to temporarily close their plants, breaking a crucial link in the pipette supply chain. Texas, one of the largest exporters of plastics and other petrochemical products, is also home to two of ExxonMobil’s three biggest polyethylene plants, producing the clear plastic polymer commonly used in packaging materials, toys and pipette tips. With a major manufacturing center of plastics disturbed, plastic lab material production became even more strained.
These events have compounded to produce this massive pipette tip shortage — an unprecedented circumstance for many researchers like Redko.
“I have been here for 11 years and I’ve had antibodies and other supplies that were backordered, but not in terms of plastics,” Redko said.
For some labs, excess backup supplies have allowed their research to continue, while others have had to be more creative to adapt.
Trading materials with other labs, reaching out to numerous vendors and showing flexibility in ordering different equipment have allowed labs to carry on despite the shortage, Lammerding said.
On Cornell’s campus, the Continuity of Operations Plan — which established guidelines for supply shortages at the start of the pandemic in April 2020 — has also helped labs get disinfectants and gloves while supplies were backordered, Redko said.
While it is not clear how much longer shortages will last, government agencies are stepping in to fund the restoration of the plasticware supply chains needed for lab equipment.
In December, Corning, one of the world’s largest lab material producers, received $15 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to make 684 million more pipette tips each year in its facility in Durham, North Carolina. Tecan, a Swiss company that produces lab equipment, also received $32 million under the CARES Act from the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to build new manufacturing lines for pipette tips.These projects are slated to start manufacturing pipette tips beginning in fall 2021.
Until then, labs are adapting to these supply shortages, moving forward to push the boundaries of research.
“In the big picture, we’re still lucky to be able to do our work,” Lammerding said.