Manitoba scrambling to fix shortage of essential COVID-19 testing device

Manitoba is experiencing a “desperate” shortage of filtered pipette tips — a small piece of medical equipment needed for every single COVID-19 test.

A call has gone out to researchers and scientists to donate any supplies they have.

Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist with diagnostic services at Manitoba’s Shared Health department, sent an email to University of Manitoba researchers yesterday afternoon.

“Shared Health laboratories is in desperate need of pipette tips for COVID-19 RT-PCR testing,” Lagacé-Wiens wrote.

“Some of our facilities will run out of supplies this weekend.”

No service impacts: provincial spokesperson

In a statement to CBC News sent Wednesday evening, a spokesperson for Shared Health said Manitoba has managed to track down some supply.

“We have secured alternate suppliers and are working with our procurement team to identify additional supply sources to ensure there are no service impacts,” a provincial spokesperson wrote.

“Like many other Canadian labs, we are facing a shortage of pipette tips to complete rapid COVID-19 testing due to a shortage in global supply,” the spokesperson wrote.

CBC asked Shared Health where the supplies were obtained, and how long they will last, but has not received a response.

A spokesperson for Dynacare, a private health-care company helping with COVID-19 testing in Manitoba, confirmed there is a shortage of pipette tips in Manitoba.

“With the technology that we have, it’s not impacting our COVID testing,” spokesperson Andrea Arch wrote in an email.

Researchers donating supplies

These pipette tips are being donated by biologist Jeffrey Marcus. A new pipette tip is needed for every test, Marcus said, and the ones used in COVID-19 testing have a filter to prevent contamination. (Jeffrey Marcus/Submitted)

Biologist Jeffrey Marcus rushed to his research lab at the University of Manitoba this afternoon to see what pipette tip supplies he could donate, after receiving the email.

“I rushed … to see what we can contribute to the cause to maybe buy the province a little bit more time,” Marcus said.

He’ll be donating more than 50 boxes, which can be used for nearly 6,000 COVID tests.

“Everybody needs these filter tips to do these tests,” he said. 

What’s a pipette tip?

A pipette is used to move liquid between test tubes, Marcus explained. To prevent the pipette from being contaminated, you cover it with a small plastic cone, called a filter pipette tip, on the front of the device.

Every single COVID test requires a new pipette tip, Marcus said.

“If you suck up a COVID-positive sample into a pipette without a filter, there will be little aerosols that get sucked up onto your pipette. At that point, every sample downstream of that one sample winds up looking like it’s positive,” Marcus explained.

A pipette (above) is fitted with a special filtered tip (below) which is changed out for every COVID-19 test. Each COVID test requires a new one. (Submitted by Jeffrey Marcus)

Marcus said the province has mismanaged its handling of the pandemic.

“I am disappointed the people who are running the show here haven’t been as proactive as they probably should have been,” he said.

But he said right now he’s more interested in helping fix the problem.

Universities and other research organizations have been donating supplies and loaning equipment to help the provincial health system, he said.

“If our provincial government can’t supply our labs with the things that we need for COVID testing, then I’m going to do my part to make sure the people of Manitoba supply those labs,” he said.

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