Supplychain shortages involving clinical laboratory products may not ease up any time soon, as China’s largest shipping province is once again in COVID-19 lockdown
Following two years of extremely high demand, pathology laboratories as well as non-medical labs in the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe are experiencing significant shortages of laboratory resources as well as rising costs. That’s according to a recently released survey by Starlab Group, a European supplier of lab products.
In its latest annual “mood barometer” survey of around 200 lab professionals in the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, Starlab Group received reports of “empty warehouses” and a current shortage of much needed lab equipment, reportedly as a result of rising costs, high demand, and stockpiling of critical materials needed by pathology laboratories during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Laboratory News.
The survey respondents, who represented both medical laboratories and research labs, noted experiencing more pressure from staff shortages and insufficient supplies required to meet testing demands in 2021 as compared to 2020. For example, only 23% of respondents said they had enough liquid handling materials—such as protective gloves and pipettes—in 2021, down from 39% who responded to the same question in 2020.
“The entire laboratory industry has been in a vicious circle for two years. While more and more materials are needed, there’s a lack of supplies. At the same time, laboratories want to stockpile material, putting additional pressure on demand, suppliers, and prices,” Denise Fane de Salis, Starlab’s UK Managing Director and Area Head for Northern Europe, told Process Engineering. “Institutes that perform important basic work cannot keep up with the price competition triggered by COVID-19 and are particularly suffering from this situation,” she added.
Lab Supply Shortages Worsen in 2021
With a UK office in Milton Keynes, Starlab’s network of distributors specialize in liquid handling products including pipette tips, multi-channel pipettes, and cell culture tubes, as well as PCR test consumables and nitrile and latex gloves.
According to Laboratory News, Starlab’s 2021 annual survey, released in March 2022, found that:
64% cited late deliveries contributing to supply woes.
58% noted medical labs getting preference over research labs, up from 46% in 2020.
57% said demand for liquid handling products was the same as 2020.
30% of respondents said material requirements were up 50% in 2021, compared to 2020.
76% reported dealing with rising prices in lab operations.
29% expect their need for materials to increase by 25% in 2022, and 3% said the increase may go as high as 50%.
17% of respondents said they foresee challenges stemming from staff shortages, with 8% fearing employee burnout.
UK-European Medical Laboratories on Waiting Lists for Supplies
Could import of lab equipment and consumables from Asia and other areas outside UK have contributed to the shortages?
“A substantial portion of the world’s clinical laboratory automation, analyzers, instruments, and test kits are manufactured outside UK. Thus, UK labs may face a more acute shortage of lab equipment, tests, and consumables because governments in countries that manufacture these products are taking ‘first dibs’ on production, leaving less to ship to other countries,” said Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and our sister publication The Dark Report.
Indeed, a statement on Starlab’s website describes challenges the company faces meeting customers’ requests for supplies.
“The pandemic also has an impact on our products that are manufactured in other countries. This particularly affects goods that we ship from the Asian region to Europe by sea freight. Due to the capacity restrictions on the ships, we expect additional costs for the transport of goods at any time. Unfortunately, the situation is not expected to ease for the time-being,” Starlab said.
Furthermore, economists are forecasting probable ongoing supply chain effects from a new SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in China.
Lockdown of China’s Largest Shipping Province Threatens Supply Chains Worldwide
According to Bloomberg News, “Shenzhen’s 17.5 million residents [were] put into lockdown on [March 13] for at least a week. The city is located in Guangdong, the manufacturing powerhouse province, which has a gross domestic product of $1.96 trillion—around that of Spain and South Korea—and which accounts for 11% of China’s economy … Guangdong’s $795 billion worth of exports in 2021 accounted for 23% of China’s shipments that year, the most of any province.”
Bloomberg noted that “restrictions in Shenzhen could inflict the heaviest coronavirus-related blow to growth since a nationwide lockdown in 2020, with the additional threat of sending supply shocks rippling around the world.”
“Given that China is a major global manufacturing hub and one of the most important links in global supply chains, the country’s COVID policy can have notably spillovers to its trading partners’ activity and the global economy,” Tuuli McCully, Head of Asia-Pacific Economies, Scotiabank, told Bloomberg News.
Wise medical laboratory leaders will remain apprised of supply chain developments and possible lockdowns in Asia while also locating and possibly securing new sources for test materials and laboratory equipment in anticipation of future supply shortages.
Service uses ‘hub-and-spoke’ routing model to provide rapid delivery of time-and-temperature-sensitive clinical laboratory specimens and supplies
Drone delivery service in healthcare is beginning to take flight both here and abroad, with California-based Matternet launching medical drone delivery networks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Berlin, Germany.
The successful use of unmanned aircraft to deliver patient specimens has major implications for clinical laboratories. When conditions allow them to fly, drones can significantly shorten delivery times of routine patient specimens such as blood and urine.
The drones will fly two routes and carry scheduled deliveries of specialty infusion medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE). Because infusion medicines are patient-specific, high cost, and have a short shelf life, delivery by drone within 10 minutes is an ideal solution, Matternet said in the news release. Individually compounded medicines also will be delivered on-demand for dispensing to patients who need real-time access to treatments.
Matternet has been operating in the US since August 2018. In, “WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report, reported how—following a two-year trial period using a quadcopter to deliver patients’ samples from a physicians’ office satellite lab/draw station to the WakeMed Medical Center’s central lab—the North Carolina healthcare system, in partnership with UPSFF, completed the first successful revenue-generating commercial transport of lab supplies by drone in the US at WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus in Raleigh, N.C.
Bala Ganesh, a Vice President of Engineering at UPS, said UPSFF, which was launched in July 2019, is focused on healthcare deliveries. To make drone deliveries commercially viable, both “criticality” and an industry’s “willingness to pay” are important, he said. “We never looked at delivering pizza,” he told Forbes. UPSFF is the first company to receive the FAA’s Part 135 certification (package delivery by drone).
BVLOS Drone Delivery of Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Europe
Last year, Matternet launched the first beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS)-operated medical drone network in Europe. Its unmanned aircraft will be flown without the requirement that a pilot always maintain a visual line of sight on the aircraft.
Matternet launched its BVLOS operations at Labor Berlin, Europe’s largest hospital laboratory, which includes facilities in 13 hospitals across Berlin.
“We continue to expand drone delivery operations around the world with a focus on urban environments,” said Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet Founder and CEO, in a press release. “Hospitals and laboratories in densely populated cities like Berlin need fast and predictable transportation methods that avoid urban congestion. We are thrilled to partner with Labor Berlin and look forward to streamlining their diagnostics work to the benefit of Berlin’s hospitals and residents.”
According to the press release, Matternet’s drone delivery network will transport samples from hospitals to Labor Berlin facilities up to 70% faster than ground courier services, as well as reducing vehicular traffic and emissions in Berlin’s urban core. Currently, more than 15,000 samples are transported daily across Labor Berlin’s healthcare system.
Will Drone Delivery of Clinical Laboratory Specimens Become the New Normal?
“I think that this is the wave of the future,” Atrium Health Senior Vice President Conrad Emmerich, who previously served as Senior Vice President, Business Services, at Wake Forest Baptist Health, told Fox 8 News.
It’s certainly beginning to look as if drone delivery as a viable alternative to traditional transport methods is taking off (pun intended). Since 2017, Dark Daily has published 10 ebriefings on drone delivery systems for healthcare being trailed worldwide.
Since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, regular transporting of clinical laboratory specimens and supplies by drone could reduce transit times between hospitals and clinical laboratories and lower laboratory specimen transportation costs.
Hospital administrators and medical laboratory executives may want to keep tabs on the expansion of such services into their regions. There may be opportunities to improve clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction.
On top of everything else during this pandemic, drug-resistant infections are threatening the most vulnerable patients in COVID-19 ICUs
New study by researchers at the University of Minnesota highlights the continuing need for microbiologists and clinical laboratories to stay alert for COVID-19 patients with drug-resistant infections. In their study, researchers highlighted CDC statistics about the number of Candida auris (C. auris) infections reported in the United States during 2020, for example.
Candida auris is a particularly nasty fungus. It spreads easily, is difficult to remove from surfaces, and can kill. Worst of all, modern drugs designed to combat this potentially deadly fungus are becoming less effective at eradicating it, and COVID-19 ICU patients appear especially vulnerable to C. auris infections.
COVID-19 and C. auris a Potentially Devastating Combination
Hospitals in many areas are at a critical capacity. Thus, hospital-acquired infections such as sepsis can be particularly dangerous for COVID-19 patients. Adding to the problem, C. auris requires special equipment to identify, and standard medical laboratory methods are not always enough. Misidentification is possible, even probable.
A paper in the Journal of Global Antimicrobial Resistance (JGAR), titled, “The Lurking Scourge of Multidrug Resistant Candida Auris in Times of COVID-19 Pandemic,” notes that “A particularly disturbing feature of COVID-19 patients is their tendency to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome that requires ICU admission, mechanical ventilation, and/or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. … This haunting facet of COVID-19 pandemic has severely challenged even the most advanced hospital settings. Yet one potential confounder, not in the immediate attention of most healthcare professionals, is the secondary transmission of multidrug resistant organisms like the fungus Candida auris in COVID-19 ICUs. … C. auris outbreaks occur in critically ill hospitalized patients and can result in mortalities rates ranging from 30% to 72%. … Both C. auris and SARS-CoV-2 have been found on hospital surfaces including on bedrails, IV poles, beds, air conditioner ducts, windows and hospital floors. Therefore, the standard COVID-19 critical care of mechanical ventilation and protracted ventilator-assisted management makes these patients potentially susceptible to colonization and infections by C. auris.”
One study mentioned in the JGAR paper conducted in New Delhi, India, looked at 596 cases where patients were admitted to the ICU with COVID-19. Fifteen of them had infections caused by C. auris. Eight of those patients died. “Of note, four patients who died experienced persistent fungemia and despite five days of micafungin therapy, C. auris again grew in blood culture,” according to reporting on the study in Infection Control Today (ICT).
Some C. auris mortality rates are as high as 72%. And patients with weakened immune systems are at particular risk, “making it an even more serious concern when 8% to 9% of roughly 530,000 ICU patients in the United States have COVID-19,” ICT reported.
Apparently, the COVID-19 pandemic has created circumstances that are particularly suited for C. auris to spread. “Given the nosocomial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by those infected, many hospital environments may serve as venues for C. auris transmission as it is a known environmental colonizer of ICUs,” wrote the JGAR paper authors.
CDC Reports and Recommendations
Along with being especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, C. auris infections also produce symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, “including fever, cough, and shortness of breath,” according to the CDC’s website. People admitted to ICUs with COVID-19 are especially vulnerable to bacterial and fungal co-infections. “These fungal co-infections are reported with increasing frequency and can be associated with severe illness and death,” says the CDC.
C. auris outbreaks in the United States have mostly been in long-term care facilities, but the pandemic seems to be changing that and more outbreaks have been detected in acute care facilities, the CDC reported. The lack of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), changes in infection control routines, and other factors could be to blame for the increase.
Just as community spread is an issue with COVID-19 variants, so too is it a concern with C. auris infections. “New C. auris cases without links to known cases or healthcare abroad have been identified recently in multiple states, suggesting an increase in undetected transmission,” the CDC noted.
As of January 19, 2021, according to the CDC the case count of C. auris infections in the US was 1,625, with California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York having more than 100 cases each.
Using Clinical Laboratory Tests to Identify C. Auris
One of the big concerns about C. auris is that it is so difficult to detect, and that medical laboratories in some countries simply do not have the technology and resources to identify and tackle the infection.
“As C. auris diagnostics in resource-limited countries is yet another challenge, we feel that alerting the global medical community about the potential of C. auris as a confounding factor in COVID-19 is a necessity,” wrote the authors of the paper published in the Journal of Global Antimicrobial Resistance.
As if the COVID-19 pandemic has not been enough, drug resistant bacteria, viruses, and deadly fungi are threatening to wreak havoc among SARS-CoV-2 infected patients. Microbiologists and medical laboratory scientists know that testing for all types of infections is vitally important, but especially when it comes to infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ARB) and other dangerous organisms that demonstrate antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
Microbiologists and clinical laboratory professionals will want to stay informed about the number of C. auris cases identified in the US and the locations and settings where the fungus was detected. They will want to be on the alert within their hospitals and health networks, as well as with the doctor’s offices served by their labs.
Since the pandemic began, federal investigators are specifically looking for patterns of fraud in Medicare claims data for COVID-19 clinical laboratory testing
Last month, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced it had been investigating trends in Medicare claims data that could indicate patterns of fraud in the billing for COVID-19 clinical laboratory tests, Modern Healthcare reported.
Stretching back to at least March, fraudulent actors offering fake SARS-CoV-2 tests have preyed on vulnerable Americans in a wide variety of ways during the public health emergency, according to published reports. Some scam operators have gone into nursing homes and long-term care facilities to collect cash from unsuspecting elders in exchange for swab collections and phony testing, the New York Times reported.
Since the declaration of the public health emergency in the US, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) no longer requires a lab test requisition signed by a treating physician or other provider for COVID-19 testing. “The strong demand for and limited supply of SARS-CoV-2 tests, along with the move by CMS to relax rules for certain test orders during the pandemic, makes the situation a potentially ripe one for fraud,” Modern Healthcare stated.
Plus, a lack of clarity about the medical necessity of COVID-19 tests could raise the liability risk for law-abiding clinical laboratories. All of these factors make COVID-19 testing fraud a potential bombshell for clinical laboratories conducting coronavirus testing that may get caught up in federal investigations.
Feds Step Up Enforcement
Shortly after the pandemic arrived in the US, the FBI, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the FDA, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and other federal and local authorities have frequently warned doctors, hospitals, and healthcare consumers about the potential for fraud by unscrupulous companies purporting to offer legitimate clinical laboratory testing for COVID-19. A June 26 FBI press release stated, “Scammers are marketing fraudulent and/or unapproved COVID-19 antibody tests, potentially providing false results.”
Some of the fraudsters behind these scams have operated online and through social media and email. While others have conducted these scams in person or over the phone, noted the press release.
And yet, despite the warnings, the scams and news articles about them have continued to spread throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Various Forms of Fraud and Their Consequences
In many of these scams, fraudsters seek to collect consumers’ personal information, including names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers, as well as other forms of personal health information, such as Medicare or private health insurance data, the FBI reported. Scammers can use that information in medical insurance fraud schemes or to commit identity theft, the agency added.
Additionally, any fake or inaccurate COVID-19 tests or assays that the FDA has not allowed for use could provide doctors with false results, potentially creating a dangerous situation for patients.
The New York Times (NYT) recently reported that the FBI had issued a warning “about scammers who advertise fraudulent COVID-19 antibody tests as a way to obtain personal information that can be used for identity theft or medical insurance fraud.”
On June 17, the FDA reported that it issued warning letters to three companies for marketing adulterated and misbranded COVID-19 antibody tests, stated an FDA news release. The agency sent warning letters to:
On April 17, the New York Times reported that a special agent with the HHS OIG noted that impostors seeking Medicare or Medicaid information posed as doctors or laboratory technicians to offer fake tests in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Earlier in April, The Texas Tribune reported that the owner of a freestanding emergency room in Laredo, Texas, spent $500,000 to buy 20,000 rapid COVID-19 tests for patients suspected of having COVID-19. Health officials in Laredo planned to establish a drive-through testing site and then administer tests that came from a manufacturer in China to detect active infections. After trying to validate the tests, city health officials found they were unreliable and unusable.
An April 9 report from the news department of the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) stated that federal officials have found fake coronavirus testing sites in many states, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, and Washington state.
The FBI, according to AARP, investigated several fake test sites in Louisville, Ky., after a city official reported that people in personal protective equipment (PPE) were collecting biological specimens from residents. Those seeking tests were told to pay $240 in cash or give their Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security cards to verify their identity.
Fake drive-up testing sites were reported at gas stations and other locations in Louisville over a four-day period, the AARP reported.
On April 2, WRGB TV in Albany, N.Y., reported that scammers pretending to be from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) were taking money and insurance information from people in exchange for fake coronavirus tests. One woman told police she got a fake test at a drive-up site in a Little League parking lot.
North Greenbush police said the scammers identified themselves as being with NYSDOH and collected money and insurance information from multiple people. Police and state officials said the DOH had no connection to the collection site in the parking lot.
Lessons for Lab Directors
For clinical laboratory directors and all clinical lab scientists, the lesson from these stories is to be wary of strangers offering COVID-19 testing, while also making certain to post information for customers about the legitimacy of your lab’s COVID-19 rapid molecular and serological tests. Doing so might involve providing proof that the FDA has allowed your tests to be used for the coronavirus.
Also, medical laboratories should ensure that all employees collecting specimens in public places display proper identification.
Lab leaders who adopt best practices in courier services will help ensure their lab’s supply chains remain secure
Hospital and health systems using courier services to transport patients’ biological specimens from doctors’ offices and other locations to clinical laboratories for testing and reporting are finding those services delayed or disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Limited office hours, closed physician practices, and the need for drivers to take time for symptom checking on healthcare campuses are among the growing challenges faced by couriers transporting medical laboratory specimens during this pandemic, experts told Dark Daily.
All these developments require courier operations and logistics companies to think outside the box for solutions that address the unique challenges triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that have disrupted the normal operations of physicians’ offices, hospitals, and other healthcare providers. For example, many clinical labs struggle to obtain enough specimen collection and specimen transport supplies to sustain both their nascent COVID-19 testing programs and their routine testing operations.
One national logistics company recognized that it could help labs with the disruption in the supply chain for laboratory supplies caused by the coronavirus outbreak. In the early weeks of the pandemic, West Haven, Conn.-based Lab Logistics and its sister company Path-Tec, took the initiative to develop collaborations and strategic partnerships with several established manufacturers of medical laboratory supplies. Now it could not only be a source of much-needed supplies for its clients, but its network of couriers could supply the increase in services for all the locations where such supplies were needed.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus outbreak caused widespread disruption to the daily activities of hospitals, health systems, physician’s offices, and other providers. According to Susan Uihlein, Senior Vice President Business Development-Hospital Couriers at Lab Logistics—a company that creates, implements, and manages courier models customized to medical laboratory, hospitals, and health systems—in response to the pandemic, there was an immediate need by one of the largest multi-regional Health Systems in New York to align courier and logistics services to meet the new realities of how its facilities would respond to patient needs. It was also necessary that logistics solutions be complementary with the health systems’ COVID-19 policies.
“This health system requested that Lab Logistics’ drivers access the hospital’s personnel tracking application upon arrival,” explained Uihlein. “The health system’s new COVID-19 policy required everyone wishing to enter the health system campus to complete a coronavirus screening process—including having a temperature reading taken—and then receive a status confirmation on a smartphone screen. This obviously impacted the couriers’ progress on their routes.”
“We have 2,600 medical-specific couriers throughout the United States, and although all couriers undergo extensive orientation regarding known infectious transport, this current situation has spotlighted how important (COVID-19) is to our clients,” Brian McArdle, President and Chief Executive Officer of Lab Logistics, told Dark Daily.
“The couriers represent us and our clients,” he continued. “They are out in the field, they are picking up, delivering, and rolling with the punches as far as what a healthcare system or a clinical laboratory needs from them—from photo IDs to wearing masks and gloves. The process keeps evolving. And we have evolved with it.”
“Our operations team makes sure that we work with each client to flexibly react to changes in that day’s pickups and deliveries, as appropriate. There has been much optimization and on-the-fly changes,” said Uihlein.
In fact, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a 26% increase in requests for specimen delivery, PPE, and COVID-19 related supply chain movement, according to data on the California, Louisiana, and New York City healthcare markets provided by Lab Logistics.
Clinical Laboratories Should Review Specimen Transport Procedures
Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic is putting unique stresses on the logistics and transportation services operated by hospital systems, medical labs and anatomic pathology groups. That why it would be timely and appropriate for lab leaders to review/update best practices and necessary requirements that ensure efficient management of clinical laboratory specimens.
Topics covered in this highly-informative white paper include:
Handling and tracking laboratory specimen samples;
Confirming medical security, chain of custody, and transit tracking;
Coordinating test kits, supplies, reagents, lab equipment, and instruments;
Approaching a medical courier service conversion.
“By utilizing a logistics system that includes a dedicated courier, medical laboratories and healthcare systems can manage all aspects of transportation specimen transport, including handling and tracking of specimens, medical security, chain of custody, tracking supply inventory, and delivery. Successfully executed, all of these functions can generate financial improvements,” notes the white paper.
Tracking Specimen Arrival and Predicting Which Tests Will Be Needed
One technology that lab and healthcare system leaders can use to control costs and staffing involves online real-time tracking of drivers to enhance test turnaround time and determine when tests will be performed.
Lab Logistics’ version of this technology uses barcode scanning, GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking, and an online portal that enables its clients to view the routes and stops a driver has made for the lab. Lab leaders can determine how many specimens are expected, and what type of tests will be required, before the specimens arrive.
“They can see the volume coming in and they can staff-up based on the information we are giving them and not over-staff. It’s really good information,” Uihlein said.
Lab Logistics’ platform also integrates with a hospital’s laboratory information system (LIS) through the lab’s barcode. “The integration makes it possible for labs to get faster information from the field into their systems and create accessioning,” Uihlein explained.
Specimen Management Improved through Route Tracking
“We found that some drivers were doing daily pickups and we were not getting any specimens. Some clients were on vacation, stopped using the laboratory altogether, or weren’t doing that type of laboratory work anymore,” Napolitano told the white paper researchers.
Driver tracking also enabled Ochsner Health System in Louisiana to avoid “hot shots”—one-time delivery pickups which could be 90 miles away from the lab, explained Lloyd Gravois, Assistant Vice President of Logistics-Supply Chain, in the white paper.
Medical laboratory leaders who wish to enhance their lab’s specimen management and solve logistics issues during and after the COVID-19 pandemic are encouraged to download a copy of the Free Special Edition white paper by clicking here, or by placing this URL in their web browsers: https://www.darkdaily.com/free-special-edition-white-paper-specimen-management-and-logistics-issues-to-evaluate-for-continuous-quality-improvement-3-high-risk-medical-courier-support-services/.