An ongoing pipette tip shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, blackouts in Texas, and a manufacturing plant fire is hindering scientific work around the world, from newborn screening to drug development to basic research.
While COVID-19 diagnostic tests' reliance on pipette tips has contributed to the shortage, several other issues further up the supply chain have also played a role. Winter storm–driven power outages in Texas earlier this year forced ExxonMobil and other companies to temporarily shut down plants, some of which produced polypropylene resin, the raw material for pipette tips. Approximately 85% of the polypropylene production capacity in the U.S. was affected by the blackouts.
In addition, STAT reported, a fire at a manufacturing plant destroyed 80% of the nation's supply of containers for used pipette tips and other sharp objects.
"Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the entire life science industry has experienced unprecedented demand for COVID-19–related products," a spokesperson for scientific supplies distribution company MilliporeSigma said in an emailed statement. "We are working 24/7 to meet this increased demand for these products and as well as those used in scientific discovery."
Most of the biotech companies that spoke with STAT said they were conserving pipettes and had not yet had to halt work. Director of the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health Scott Shone, PhD, said that solutions like washing and reusing tips and running newborn screenings in batches have been effective enough that "we are not in a situation where there's immediate jeopardy to newborns." But if the shortage worsens, scientists might be forced to postpone experiments or abandon research projects altogether.