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Pandemic’s Next Medical Shortage? Vaccine Needles, Syringes (1)

May 7, 2020, 7:43 PMUpdated: May 7, 2020, 9:58 PM

Health-care providers, the Trump administration, and manufacturers like Becton Dickinson and Co. are preparing for the next Covid-19 supply shortage—needles and syringes essential to delivering vaccines.

The Department of Health and Human Services has signed contracts to get an additional 320 million needles and syringes, and companies are ramping up their production.

The moves come as officials foresee an increased demand for needles and syringes with more people seeking a flu shot this year and governments trying to secure inventory for a possible Covid-19 vaccine.

The Trump administration is working to speed a Covid-19 vaccine to market amid a rising U.S. death toll and fears that there could be a second spike in cases of the respiratory disease in the winter. The administration is pressing drugmakers to develop and produce hundreds of millions of doses of a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the year.

A study found the market could handle an increased demand of 10 million syringes, but that three to four times that demand increase would put undue stress on the market for 18 months, said Chaun Powell, group vice president of strategic supplier engagement at hospital supply-purchasing group Premier Inc..

The Strategic National Stockpile has 15 million needles and syringes, according to a complaint filed this week by Rick Bright, who had served as the director of the HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until the end of last month. Bright filed the complaint with the Office of Special Counsel over his transfer from BARDA to the National Institutes of Health.

The administration declined to comment on the specific number in the stockpile.

The number cited by Bright is far short of what one White House official said is needed.

“An estimated 850M needles and syringes are required to deliver vaccine. Our current inventory of these supplies is limited, and under current capabilities, it would take up to two years to produce this amount of specialized safety needles,” Peter Navarro, White House director of trade and manufacturing policy, wrote in a Feb. 14 memo to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, according to Bright’s complaint.

“We may find ourselves in a situation where we have enough vaccine but no way to deliver all of it,” Navarro said.

An HHS spokesperson said it is premature to speculate on how many syringes or needles would be necessary for a Covid-19 vaccine because vaccines are still in development.

“When a safe, effective vaccine becomes available, doses will be manufactured over a period of time, so ancillary supplies will be needed over time rather than all on day one,” the spokesperson added

New Contracts, Increased Production

BARDA is working to ensure supplies needed to administer a Covid-19 vaccine don’t “disrupt the supplies needed for non-COVID-19 vaccinations,” the spokesperson said. BARDA helps develop countermeasures against emerging diseases, including vaccines.

The HHS signed two contracts May 1 with Marathon Medical Corp. and Retractable Technologies Inc. for $111.5 million worth of needles and syringes for “a Covid-19 mass vaccination campaign.”

That contract will supply 320 million needles and syringes for any successful injectable Covid-19 vaccines, the HHS spokesperson said. The Strategic National Stockpile and the Federal Emergency Management Agency also are working to acquire additional supplies and increase manufacturing capacity, the spokesperson added.

Becton Dickinson, a major manufacturer, has “already ramped up production of injection devices to our maximum capacity in anticipation of extreme surge demand for these products, including an expected surge for flu vaccinations next season given forecasts of a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the Fall,” Troy Kirkpatrick, senior director of public relations, said in a statement.

“Even as the world’s largest producer of syringes and needles, BD is part of a larger ecosystem of syringe and needle suppliers that will be needed to meet expected demand,” Kirkpatrick added.

Cardinal Health, one of the other largest makers of needles and syringes, is “experiencing backorders and declining inventory levels for certain medical products at rates never experienced before,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Cardinal is working to increase manufacturing for products with expected spikes in demand and working with governments to speed up shipments of supplies, the spokesperson added.

A Surge in Shortages

The leading indicator for shortages is the number of medical items for which suppliers and distributors have placed caps on orders, Powell said.

That number is “significantly larger than your historical usage,” Powell said.

There typically are 300 to 500 items on that list each year, Powell said. Right now there are 10,500 unique items, including about 360 types of needles and syringes, according to data Premier has collected from 1,800 medical suppliers.

The health-care industry has learned that “historical demand and historical ordering in no way represents current demand” for supplies because of Covid-19, Powell said.

Syringe supply could be increased by reverting to reusable glass syringes from the disposable plastic ones that most providers use, Powell said. Needles are more difficult and would just require an increase in manufacturing.

There also could also be possible supply disruptions of the raw materials used to make needles and syringes, as was seen with the materials used to make N95 respirators, Powell said.

—With assistance from Paul Murphy

(Updates seventh paragraph with administration declining to comment on number in stockpile.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com; Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com

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