How the U.S. is combating the shortage of coronavirus testing swabs

  • There are only two manufacturers of swabs in the world 
  • The only manufacturer in the U.S. has received a $75 million contract
  • New alternatives are emerging to meet demand for increased testing

When a shortage of medical testing swabs put a bottleneck on viral COVID-19 testing in March, nasopharyngeal swab producers rushed to meet the new demand. 

To combat this highly specific shortage in medical testing supplies, Puritan Medical products in Maine, the only domestic manufacturer of nasopharyngeal swabs, has received a $75 million contract under the Defense Production Act to keep up with coronavirus testing. This came after efforts to meet demand by getting swabs from the only other manufacturer, a company in Italy, ultimately failed. 

Narrow criteria meant that only swabs made with synthetic fibers and non-wooden shafts long enough to reach the nasopharynx, the small passage between the soft palate and nasal cavity, could be used. That left few manufacturers on the table. Swabs to be used in coronavirus testing also could not contain calcium alginate, a common additive in medical swabs that can kill the coronavirus before it arrives at a testing lab

According to NPR, the issue is that in order to swab for coronavirus, medical professionals have to swab for flu first. With two swabs per person, that has depleted medical stockpiles across the country. 

NPR also reported that these swabs are “regulated, patented, and specialized,” meaning only two manufacturers can make them. And while the U.S. government does have an emergency stockpile of medical supplies, it does not include these types of swabs

Even so, the US. Food and Drug Administration cleared a new type of swab with a polyester fiber tip to be used in coronavirus testing in April. However, there’s been no word on when these new swabs may go into production. Another type of swab, made with an injection-molded tip, began human trials at the end of April. 

Other types of tests are being invented to circumvent the need for a nasopharyngeal swabs in the first place. A saliva test recently received approval from the FDA. In trials, this test also produced fewer false-positive results. These at-home tests, as well as tests using nasal swabs to collect samples from the tip of the nose, are going into production and will be available by June. About 140 companies have either been given the go-ahead or are submitting authorization requests to distribute tests for coronavirus.

Sources: NPR (on original shortage), NPR (on current action), STAT News, FDA, Harvard, LiveScience, GoodRx, U.S. Department of Defense

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