Industry Voices—Millions of COVID-19 test swabs are sitting in a warehouse while shortages needlessly plague the U.S.

Illustration of man getting COVID test
Despite the demand illustrated by a Department of Defense contract, Young Innovations is sitting on 12 million unsold swabs and has been forced to curtail production while hospitals are clamoring for more, says CEO Dave Sproat. (iStock/Getty Images)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we, like many Americans, wondered what we could do to play a part in the collective effort to combat this issue.

One of my colleagues was watching the news and noticed that the dental supplies we manufacture and market globally looked very similar to COVID-19 testing swabs that were in dire need. After further brainstorming, our engineers confirmed that we could, in fact, repurpose our assembly line, bring back our furloughed workforce and help address the national shortage.

We seized this unique business opportunity and swiftly invested in designing and creating a new product line. But what we didn’t anticipate was just how complicated and bottlenecked America’s COVID-19 supply chain would be, an early warning sign of how disorganized and ineffective our national testing effort has turned out to be.

Even seven months into the pandemic, hospitals and health systems remain desperate for nasopharyngeal swabs, the gold standard for COVID-19 testing—with tens of millions of unfilled backlogged orders since March. These shortages have had critical ripple effects, forcing the use of less-effective options such as shallower swabs and 3D-printed versions. 

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More rapid testing is increasingly vital to reopen schools, universities and small and large businesses. In September, the U.S. was testing only an average of 706,000 people per day, far below the 4 million per day needed to successfully curb the virus, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

The tragedy is that American businesses can fix this if we have national leadership and coordination. In our case, we mobilized in just 90 days to gather the technology, tools and partners to move from conception to commercialization at our Microbrush factory outside Milwaukee. We quickly secured a substantial contract with the Department of Defense (DOD), and we expanded our capability to be able to deliver millions of swabs per week.

Despite the demand illustrated by our DOD contract, we find ourselves now sitting on 12 million unsold swabs and have been forced to curtail production while hospitals are clamoring for more.

So what is going wrong? Problems began at COVID-19’s onset when distributors frantically over-ordered personal protective equipment and masks at premium cost from Asia, leaving them with warehouses full of expensive supplies that went unused for various logistical and quality-control reasons. With this temporary excess, the market swung to the opposite extreme, adopting a very cautious approach to purchasing more supplies than health systems might immediately use.

In addition, hospitals are afraid to cancel any of their millions in unfilled orders with the long-time leading swab producers and distributors because those companies remain their most trustworthy partners. Despite the backlog, hospitals won’t risk canceling and ordering from a new supplier for fear of losing their spot in line for allocation from their long-term suppliers.

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Another complicating factor is that the U.S. has also failed to produce enough of the other critical testing components—transport mediums and vials—so distributors don’t want to order swabs that may not be immediately used. There is also the issue of instilling confidence in hospitals and distributors, which are having trouble trusting each other as well.

Not all hope is lost. Businesses like ours are working with distributors every day and trying to remove all possible obstacles. We are working on third-party validated studies to instill greater confidence in new products. We’re pursuing development of additional swabs to support a variety of COVID-19 testing methods.

As one of the most advanced countries in the world, spending $3 trillion to combat the pandemic, it’s outrageous that we haven’t figured out how to manage basic supply and demand. Our experience also increases my personal fear for how our national supply chain will handle the distribution of a life-saving vaccine once it’s available, if we can’t even figure out the simple distribution of swabs.

Dave Sproat is the CEO of Young Innovations Inc., a Chicago-based manufacturer and marketer of high-quality dental equipment. Microbrush, a subsidiary of Young Innovations, pivoted from making dental microapplicators to manufacturing COVID-19 test swabs that meet FDA requirements.