News Release

Crisis in Science Labs: The Supply Chain Spiral

Scientific equipment suppliers write that supply chain disruptions continue into this stage of the pandemic, and scientists and researchers are feeling the cumulative effects of these disruptions. Raw material shortages, the impacts of inflation, shipping costs, logistical and shipping delays, and more have all affected their ability to complete lab work. This research is also paramount, as much of it involves developing new Covid-19 vaccines as variants emerge and ensuring that scientists continue to work on vaccines for other potentially emergent diseases. 

LEE RILEY, lwriley@berkeley.edu
    Riley is a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley. 

In a recent interview, Riley noted that he has been “stressed by the supply chain impacts the pandemic has imposed. It now takes many months just to obtain simple things we need for research.”

Riley told the Institute for Public Accuracy today: “My lab uses a lot of molecular microbiology research supplies, such as those used for PCR, which are the same types of reagents used for Covid-19 tests. So we were competing with large Covid-19 testing companies for these same supplies. A lot of the chemicals and plasticware (e.g. pipette tips, microcentrifuge tubes, etc.) used for these tests are produced in countries like China, which had to cut back their production during the height of the pandemic. China itself had to use these supplies for their own Covid-19 testing and control efforts––for 1.4 billion people!

“I had several visiting researchers from abroad at the beginning of the pandemic, who could not perform their experiments, first because of the lockdown, and then because of the backlog of the supplies we needed. The lack of supplies for prolonged periods may also have caused delay in our PhD students to complete their dissertation.

“Since priority was given to Covid-19 for developing tests, vaccines, and drugs, a lot of the reagents and supplies needed for diagnostic tests, drug manufacturing, and vaccine research for other diseases may have been diverted to the Covid-19-related work.”

Riley shed light on the disparate effects of shortages across the globe. “In talking to my collaborators in places like Brazil,” he said, “these issues were even worse there. Their researchers were competing for the same supplies against those in places like the U.S. and Western Europe, as well as China.” 

Riley notes that supply chain problems are beginning to ease, especially with the decrease in testing, but “if the pandemic returns with a vengeance similar to what we saw during the last peak [in the U.S. in December and January], we will run into the same problem.”

This warning comes just as a senior Biden administration official projected that the U.S. could see 100 million Covid-19 infections “and a potentially significant wave of deaths this fall and winter.”

Supply chain issues are a major factor for vaccine inequity worldwide in addition to delays in new research. The World Economic Forum also notes that many countries lack critical infrastructure to receive, maintain, and distribute vaccines. Some African countries, for instance, have suffered from logistical issues and a lack of cold chains (the low temperature-controlled supply chains necessary for some vaccine storage). These problems have combined to worsen Covid-19 vaccine inequity. COVAX, the global vaccine initiative that was created to respond to this challenge, has been criticized for being slow and missing initial inoculation target numbers