Coronavirus Testing: National Shortage of Chemicals and Basic Supplies Makes Access Limited

Mar 16, 2020 3:00 PM

Author: Julie Kiefer


Vials of testing agent: Coronavirus testing limited by shortage of materials

Shortage Slowing Health Centers' Ability to Test

The nation has a shortage of materials to collect and store patient samples. This is slowing health centers' ability to test for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Specifically, there is a shortage of a product called viral transport media. It is increasingly difficult to keep in stock.

A Testing Reagent That Preserves Clinical Samples: Viral Transport Media

Viral transport media is a mixture of proteins, antibiotics, and chemicals that preserves clinical samples for storage and testing. When a patient comes in to be tested for the new coronavirus, a health care provider collects samples by inserting a long swab into the nose and a second into the back of the throat. Both the swabs are then inserted into a vial with the media inside, sealed, and then transported to laboratories to test for presence of the virus.

Without viral transport media, there can be no testing. It is one of many important supplies required for the testing process.

Just as there is a shortage of personal protective equipment and N95 masks in hospitals, some chemical reagents are also in short supply.

Brittany Young, MD, PhD, Co-director Clinical Laboratories at University of Utah Hospital

CDC Modifies Recommendations to Preserve Resources

Due to nationwide shortages in testing reagents and supplies, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has modified collection recommendations to preserve resources in this time of need. The CDC is recommending a single swab collection rather than two swabs in a single vial, conserving one component of the collection supplies.

While these measures expand capabilities, experts stress that it is necessary that only individuals who meet specified qualifications be tested. This will ensure that there are enough tests for those who need it most. Meeting these needs will become even more challenging as the disease spreads.

“We are operating in a rapidly changing environment, adapting to change and acting as quickly as we can to provide the best patient care possible,” said Julio Delgado, MD, vice president, chief medical officer and director of laboratories at ARUP Laboratories.

Swabs for Testing Also Less Available

Viral transport media is not the only testing product in dwindling supply. The long swabs for collecting clinical samples are also becoming harder to keep in stock as are other chemical reagents needed for test kits.

“We are working closely with our partners and suppliers to meet local, regional, and national testing needs,” Delgado said. “We’re investigating and implementing alternatives to viral transport media and other supplies. We’re scaling up our testing capacity as quickly as possible while preserving the accuracy of our COVID-19 test. We are banding together with everyone in the diagnostics industry to deliver optimal patient care during this national medical emergency.”

March 23, 2020 update: ARUP Laboratories is steadily increasing COVID-19 tesitng capabilities and can now perform 1500 tests daily. Those numbers are expected to increase as long as sufficient supplies remain availabile.

March 16, 2020, 5:17 p.m. update: Due to supply constraints, limits on capacity, and extraordinary demand for testing, as of closing on March 16, ARUP is no longer accepting orders for the COVID-19 test from outside of Utah.

For more information:

ARUP's Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Research News coronavirus COVID-19