Labs Worldwide Still Struggling Amid Broken Supply Chains

Virologist Shi-Hsia Hwa of the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, holds up a multiwell plate used for plasma neutralization assays. The critical item in COVID-19 research has recently run low in supply at labs around the world.

Shi-Hsia Hwa, Africa Health Research Institute 

Among the scientists across the world poised to rapidly produce data on SARS-CoV-2’s continued global proliferation is immunologist and virologist James Nyagwange of Kenya’s Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust Research Program in Kilifi. He and his colleagues have planned a number of projects related to new variants and the human immune response to the virus, but over the past year, some of their COVID-19–related studies have stalled due to delays in getting the lab materials they need from abroad.

For a while, the researchers were precariously short on culture media, which they need to produce SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein in bulk for assays that detect virus-targeting antibodies in human blood samples. Fortunately, some orders arrived at the last minute before they ran out, Nyagwange says. But they have been less lucky with multiwell plates, which they need for another assay that assesses the antibodies’ ability to neutralize virus in vitro, bringing that project to a standstill. They’re also still waiting on special spike protein constructs that they need to make pseudoviruses—relatively harmless viruses engineered to carry mutated versions of the spike protein—so they can study the dangers posed by novel variants. They’re yet to receive one construct they ordered in January that encodes the spike protein of the B.1.351 variant, which has been circulating in Kenya for months, and another from a novel variant discovered more recently in the country.

Nyagwange says he’s heard from supply companies that the delays are related to reduced capacity as employees are working from home, or to holdups in getting the materials from their own suppliers. He adds that he worries the broken supply chains will delay key information for policymakers—such as whether the new variant has higher transmissibility or if the vaccines Kenyans are receiving are still effective against it. “You are just going by faith and not by science anymore,” he says. In general, “we are basically relying on data from other parts of the world to make policy right now.”

In developing countries, you have less funding for science, and then on top of that, these things are expensive.

—Basant Giri, Kathmandu Institute of Applied Sciences

Even a year after the start of the pandemic, the supply chains that deliver lab materials to researchers are still faltering, slowing down the pace of both of COVID-19–focused studies and other research. To blame is not only increased demand for products related to COVID-19 research and testing, but also slowdowns in air traffic, as well as global disruptions in shipping. The challenges are affecting researchers everywhere but especially those outside the US and Europe who are often more reliant on importing lab materials. The delays are impeding access to all manner of lab supplies, and are often accompanied by a surge in prices, adding to the already high costs in some low- or middle-income countries.

“I think what COVID has shown us is that just-in-time supply management does not work when there’s a global pandemic,” remarks Victor Dieriks, who studies Parkinson’s disease at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and is also experiencing exacerbated supply delays. In other words, a system in which products are shunted along the supply chain only when they’re needed, rather than kept stocked, is proving to be ill-equipped for this time of crisis.

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