“No single manufacturer can give a laboratory enough tests to cover the entire volume they need to cover,” said Dr. Garner, who is in the process of adding a fifth type of coronavirus test to his team’s repertoire.
Shortages are so widespread that even backup options don’t always pan out.
Marilyn Freeman, who is deputy director of Virginia’s D.C.L.S. public health laboratory, said her team had been waiting months for its orders of machines that can automate coronavirus test processing, which would ease the burden on staff. Two of the devices in highest demand — the Hologic Panther and Hologic Panther Fusion, the same ultraefficient robots that take Tecan’s sought-after pipette tips — most likely won’t ship to Dr. Freeman’s lab until the fall.
What’s more, some of the biggest issues from the early days of the pandemic haven’t yet resolved. Erin Graf, who regularly clocks 80-hour weeks as the director of microbiology at Mayo Clinic Arizona, said her laboratory was still strained by an inconsistent supply of the specialized swabs needed to collect specimens — an added stress on top of the new round of obstacles her team is contending with.
“We’re used to dealing with challenges. We welcome challenges,” Dr. Graf said. “But it feels like the challenge is coming almost daily now.”
As fall approaches, many researchers are growing increasingly worried that the flu season will exacerbate shortages. The coronavirus isn’t the only pathogen circulating through the human population, or the only infection that laboratories need tools to test for. Though the C.D.C. and many private companies are currently developing tests that can detect multiple pathogens at once, the sheer volume of autumn illnesses is still expected to hit labs hard — and may force some teams to delay testing for other infections.
Already, labs like Dr. Graf’s have had to cut corners with testing for sexually transmitted infections, in part because several manufacturers have had to pivot supply chains toward coronavirus testing. “Some of the most basic tests that we do, we can’t do anymore,” Dr. Graf said. “Every resource is going toward Covid. That’s something we never would’ve thought would happen.”
Shifts toward point-of-care coronavirus tests, which are fast and simple enough to perform without the need for specialized equipment, could ease some of the burden on laboratories. Pooled testing for the coronavirus, in which samples from multiple people are combined and analyzed in batches, could cut down on material consumption as well. But these tests are not yet in widespread use, and depend on many of the same manufacturing pipelines.