Laboratories have been operating at a reduced capacity during the pandemicCmglee/Wikimedia Commons

Multiple Cambridge laboratories and departments are either already facing or expecting to face supply shortages.

Missing supplies have included plastic products like pipette tips and plates used to grow cells in experiments, disposable gloves and growth media. Labs have had to work around these shortages, with both students and staff tracing the primary causes to the pandemic and Brexit.

Laura Ryan, a second-year PhD student working in a molecular biology lab at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, said her lab is lacking liquid reagents and a variety of plastic products like pipette tips and 96-well plates used in experiments. Ryan told Varsity that several supplies such as cell-growing media are “essential just for the normal functioning of the lab” so these have had to be shared among team members.

She also said that her lab had been able to procure some of the plastic products by paying more to alternative suppliers. However, “there are certain types of experiments that sadly we've had to essentially rule out until things get back on track.”

Josh Newman, who is currently doing post-doctoral work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), said that gloves, particularly ones for sensitive skin, “have been very hard to come by”. He also mentioned deficits in different types of pipette tip, as well as qPCR plates for measuring RNA levels and reagents used in Covid-19 testing.

Newman also told Varsity that there had been “significant delay” in his DNA sequencing.

Newman added: “These shortages are not convenient but it is possible to get around them. Things just take a bit longer and all of our expectations have been altered when it comes to time frame, research output etc. It's frustrating but we're making do with what we've got.”

Not all labs are experiencing problems, however.

Adam Rodgers, Purchasing Supervisor for the Sainsbury Laboratory, told Varsity that the laboratory “planned well in advance and purchased additional stock in the months ahead of Brexit and so far have not had any issues with shortages.”

According to Rodgers, “a lot of our success is having such a good relationship with our suppliers and communicating regularly with them so we can help each other.” However, he added that “a number of our laboratory suppliers are now reporting that they are facing shortages and we may possibly see some products drop out from supply.”

He noted that the laboratory has been able to secure alternatives in places where there have been delays but are now facing back orders for some plastic items. Rodgers also said that he had foreseen that ethanol as well as tips and gloves would experience delays post-Brexit and was able to increase their stock holding.

“We may not have loads of excess stock, but we should have adequate supplies,” he said.

All students and staff whom Varsity spoke to identified Brexit and the pandemic as the key causes of the shortages.

Rodgers believes that “the Covid-19 pandemic is the most significant contributor to these shortages, with suppliers prioritising the NHS. Existing supply chains have not been able to keep up with demand.

“Most suppliers operate a “just in time” (JIT) manufacturing and supply chain model (indeed, [the Sainsbury Laboratory] does under normal circumstances). In an industry where supply and demand are reasonably static, suppliers have been streamlining, making their operations more environmentally friendly for years [...] Suppliers did not anticipate the sudden rise in demand.”

He added: “Brexit has played a big part in these shortages. The extra administrative work required for imports has been causing delays; many of our suppliers source their raw material from the EU.”

Varsity was also informed of supply shortages in the Department of Biochemistry and the Department of Genetics.

Jeanne Estable, Administrator at the Department of Biochemistry, explained that the shortages were caused by increased demand in personal protective equipment (PPE), pipettes, tips and reagents needed for Covid testing and vaccination. She noted that the end of the Brexit transition period and the new border system had also had some impact on supplies but that “hopefully these are teething issues which will be resolved over the next few weeks.”

While the Department of Genetics also attributed its shortages to Covid-related demand, it informed Varsity that it is still “too early to tell what the extent of Brexit-related disruption will be on supplies” even though “anecdotally we are noticing longer lead times for deliveries and some cost increases, however this is difficult to deconvolve from COVID-related impacts.”


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Back at the LMB, Newman was informed by the company he uses for DNA sequencing that his delays were due to a “combination of Brexit, making things a bit more difficult to be sent to Germany (where they are analysed), and pandemic-related delays during the shipping, delivery and analysis of my samples.”

Some of the causes go beyond Brexit and the pandemic. Victoria Barrat, who manages the lab that Ryan works at, on the one hand attributed shortages to Brexit and suppliers switching production of certain items to supply vaccine development and manufacturing.

However, she also mentioned a shortage of FBS, a serum required to grow some cells, which, according to her, is a result of “China giving the green light to South American FBS after years of only allowing far more expensive Australian and New Zealand FBS. The price of FBS has rocketed in the last year due to demand from China.”

Both the Department of Biochemistry and the Department of Genetics informed Varsity that they cannot predict how long these shortages may last. Rodgers at the Sainsbury Laboratory predicted that the shortages would be fully resolved “by late June, with most products being back to reasonable stock levels by May.”

Shortages are not the only challenge posed by the pandemic. While laboratories were temporarily closed during the first lockdown, they have since been opened in line with government guidance on operating during the pandemic. This guidance includes regulation on social distancing, face coverings and ventilation. Many of the laboratories Varsity spoke to have had to work at reduced capacity and implement measures such as a shift system. Laboratory meetings have been moved online.

In light of these changes, Ryan commented that “it can be a little lonely as we mostly keep to ourselves and our individual schedules, but it could be a lot worse!”

Meanwhile, Newman added that one of the biggest challenges facing PhD students at the moment is that “many places […] are not offering extensions of funding for PhD students affected by the pandemic.”

He worries that this could have a negative impact on researchers who are at early stages of their careers, saying: “I hope that, as things start to go back to normal, we see more financial support for extensions being applied as standard for many of these students.”