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The U.S. Faces Another Pandemic Shortage, This Time For Lab Equipment

NOEL KING, HOST:

Science labs across the country are running low on crucial equipment.

Sally Herships from the Planet Money team asked, why is that?

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Monica Tomaszewski is a scientist in a research lab in Pittsburgh. She researches drugs to help rare genetic diseases. And she uses all kind of fancy high-tech equipment, even robots. But right now, one of her biggest stumbling blocks is from a shortage of super basic lab supplies. The shortage is so bad at Monica's lab, they protect what they do have.

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?

TOMASZEWSKI: Yeah.

HERSHIPS: Monica's stash is mostly full of those tubes. They're called pipettes. They're basically straws. And you can use them to pull liquid out of one tube and put it into another. They come in different sizes, and you need the right one. Otherwise it 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.

HERSHIPS: And scientists at labs across the country often use hundreds and hundreds a day. If you don't have the right size, it can slow down your work or stop it entirely. At Monica's 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: But all kinds of plastic lab supplies are short now - gloves, petri dishes, even the robots that use them can be back-ordered for months. Prices are soaring.

So instead of spending your time science-ing (ph), you're spending your time, like, online shopping.

TOMASZEWSKI: Yes.

HERSHIPS: Gabe Howell works with a midsize lab supply distributor in San Francisco. 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.

HERSHIPS: He's not speaking metaphorically here - an actual storm, the one that left huge parts of Texas and a bunch of chemical plants there - the kind that 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: 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, says one of the biggest slowdowns is the U.S. Defense Production Act, which prioritizes supplies for COVID testing.

HOWELL: Each COVID test uses four pipette tips, on average. And we're doing millions and millions a day.

HERSHIPS: And back in her lab, 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 patients with rare diseases. There are no cures yet. And she can see their perspective, too.

TOMASZEWSKI: I am 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.

Sally Herships, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "AUSPICIOUS PATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.