UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: NPR.
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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
We got an email from a listener not too long ago. It was about their work, so they asked not to be named. But what we can tell you is that this person is a scientist, and they wrote to us about a shortage of one supply in particular.
DAVID GURA, HOST:
Here's what that email said. I'm a scientist, and there is a major shortage in basic lab supplies that are made from plastic/polypropylene. What are the economics of plastic trade and manufacturing such that they can't keep up with demand?
HERSHIPS: Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when all those weird, previously basic-seeming products were sold out at the store, like toilet paper?
GURA: Toilet paper - chocolate chips was another. I couldn't find flour. It seemed like everybody was stress baking.
HERSHIPS: For many of us, luckily, those shortages have gone away, but for scientists, no dice. All kinds of plastic lab supplies - plastic tubes, petri dishes. Even the robots that use them can be back-ordered for months. For scientists, this is like trying to work in a restaurant without pots and pans. So prices are soaring. Scientists are bartering. They are even hoarding supplies. If you are a lab scientist right now, plastics are the new toilet paper.
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GURA: Welcome to THE INDICATOR. I'm David Gura.
HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships. We are in for Stacey Vanek Smith.
GURA: On today's show, we go on a hunt to track down the answer to this particular listener's question. What is behind the shortages in the multibillion-dollar plastic lab supply industry?
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GURA: We couldn't talk to the scientist who wrote in - at least, not on air. So instead, we called up another scientist facing the same problem - not enough plastic lab supplies. Monica Tomaszewski is a scientist in Pittsburgh. She researches drugs for rare genetic diseases, the kind that mostly don't have cures, just supportive care.
HERSHIPS: For us nonscientist people, the lab Monica works in looks kind of like a high school chemistry lab - all those waist-high gray countertops, lots of white cabinets. It's brightly lit. There are shiny floors with those colored geometric patterns all over them but way fancier because Monica uses all kinds of high-tech equipment, even robots. But right now one of her biggest stumbling blocks is this plastic shortage.
MONICA TOMASZEWSKI: We have a co-worker who has what we refer to as the stash - several boxes of different types of things that are underneath a lab bench that you have to actually crawl under to get.
HERSHIPS: Like, down on your hands and knees.
GURA: Monica's stash is mostly full of these plastic tubes called pipettes. They look kind of like eyedroppers. They're basically straws. You use them to suck liquid up out of one tube and drop it into another. Chances are, if you're running experiments on anything from blood to urine to mysterious cancerous cells, you will be using a pipette.
HERSHIPS: They come in different, very precise sizes. It's really important that you have the right one. Otherwise, your pipette might be too skinny.
TOMASZEWSKI: Or they might be too short, which means that we can't reach the bottom of the thing that we're trying to get the liquid out of.
GURA: Which is a problem. Most of these pipettes, these plastic tubes, are single-use because scientists can't risk contaminating their samples. The prices can vary, depending on the size and whether or not you buy in bulk. But the ones Monica uses tend to be around 50 cents each. These are staples of the science world. If you work in a lab, you could be using hundreds of these a day.
HERSHIPS: Monica says, at her lab, the problem started last summer when pipettes became really hard to find. One of her co-workers requested a quote back in January.
TOMASZEWSKI: And they're not supposed to be in our lab until June.
HERSHIPS: When it comes to buying plastic supplies for science labs, there's an added wrinkle. It's a dilemma that we nonscience-y consumers also have to deal with, which is when you buy lab equipment, you are buying into this whole ecosystem. It's like when you buy a phone, and you have to decide, do you want to get an iPhone? Should you get an iPhone? It's a really big decision because then you need all of these other Apple products - the special charger, the AirPods.
GURA: And the same thing is true in Monica's lab. Certain science equipment only works with certain other equipment. And that means Monica can't just buy supplies from any company, which makes tracking down supplies during a shortage even harder and is also a major time suck.
HERSHIPS: So instead of spending your time science-ing, you're spending your time, like, online shopping.
TOMASZEWSKI: Yes, yes.
HERSHIPS: When scientists like Monica need to buy supplies, they order from a kind of Staples or Amazon or OfficeMax of the lab supply world. Gabe Howell (ph) works with one of these companies. It's a midsized lab supply distributor based in San Diego. Normally, scientists might just place their orders with Gabe. But right now, he's getting a lot of frustrated texts. He says there are a ton of reasons for the shortage.
GABE HOWELL: Kind of the perfect storm (laughter) if you want to put it that way.
GURA: Gabe is not speaking metaphorically here. He's talking about an actual storm, the one that left huge parts of Texas and a bunch of chemical plants there that kind of make plastic without power, creating a supply problem. On top of that, there are shipping delays. When ships dock, he says they often have to quarantine before unloading.
HOWELL: I've heard there's delays in finding shipping containers, even. 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.
HERSHIPS: These quarantines are in place because of the pandemic, which is affecting other parts of the supply chain as well. Corning, which makes tubes and vials and other lab supplies, has a whole letter explaining the delays on its website. And it says one of the biggest slowdowns is because of the U.S. Defense Production Act, which prioritizes supplies for COVID testing. It allows the government to tell manufacturers, hey, you have to sell to the folks who are making COVID tests first.
HOWELL: Each COVID test uses four pipette tips on average, and we're doing millions and millions a day.
GURA: And this whole problem, this shortage, can be easier for big companies and big research labs to deal with than smaller ones. It's not exactly that the big companies get prioritized. Instead, Gabe says manufacturers will give the really big companies a rep to deal with purchasing, procurement, managing their inventory. And having somebody on the inside is what gives them a leg up during a supply shortage.
HOWELL: They're there whispering in your ear, saying, hey, buy some toilet paper. (Laughter) We're going to have a shortage soon.
HERSHIPS: But Gabe works for a distributor, so he also has to go shopping. His company buys supplies from a manufacturer. That's the next link in the supply chain. Thermo Fisher Scientific is a manufacturer, makes plastic lab supplies. And it says since demand started spiking, it's invested more than $150 million in new capacity. It's increased output, but it just cannot go fast enough. Dae Hong works with Thermo Fisher, and he says one big reason is that it can take up to a year to start cranking out a new product.
DAE HONG: You got to get the mold, the machine, the assembly stations and automation - like, robots. You've got to put them all together in the factory. Then, usually, you have to send them off to a sterilization facility because they need to be sterile. Then they go off to a warehouse in order to be distributed.
GURA: Thermo Fisher has factories around the world - in Rochester, N.Y.; Tijuana, Mexico; Denmark. And they've had to ship some supplies by air instead of boat, which can be way more expensive. And Dae says Thermo Fisher has had to create over a thousand new jobs as part of its expansion. Just think of all the time that takes hiring.
HONG: Yes. We had to bring on a lot of folks over the past six months - both, you know, factory workers, as well as supervisors, people in supply chain, quality, product management, finance - to ensure that we could actually bring all this together. It is a really complex effort.
HERSHIPS: So to get back to our listener's question, there are a lot of reasons for the shortage. All of those COVID tests are taking priority right now. And back in her lab in Pittsburgh, Monica, the scientist, says she gets it. She's a virologist by training. She knows how much work and research goes into viruses and how important vaccines are. But the drugs she's working on are for rare diseases. They don't have cures yet. And she can see the perspective of the patients who are waiting for those drugs too.
TOMASZEWSKI: I'm happy that those researchers are able to get everything that they need. But we never shut down either. So we're just working through what's available, and it's important for us to move forward as well.
HERSHIPS: But for now, she'll have to wait.
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HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked Sam Caiand edited by Dave Blanchard. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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