Swab Manufacturer Works To Meet 'Overwhelming' Demand

Apr 1, 2020

To test for the coronavirus, you need a swab.

But only two companies in the world manufacture the specialized instrument used to collect a sample from noses.

The limited supply has led to a shortage in the U.S. and a scramble by those two manufacturers to produce more.

One of those companies, Puritan Medical Products, based in Guilford, Maine has ramped up its production to more than 1 million swabs per week, according to Timothy Templet, the company's vice president of sales.

Templet spoke with NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday about the pressures on the company to meet the "overwhelming" demand.

"There's a lot of pressure, but I think what's happening now is there's so many new rapid test manufacturers who have been approved."

Here's more from the conversation:

On why these specialized swabs are needed for testing

The swab handle is very flexible, which it allows the handle to reach the nasal pharyngeal cavity to collect the specimen. The standard wood cotton or Q-Tip does not have the ability to bend through the nasal passage to go to the area that the sample is collected in.

On the demand for swabs

It's overwhelming, to be frank. We are running now six days a week, two shifts, 10 hours a day. We are producing over a million of that particular swab a week to service what is needed here in the United States. And a lot of it now is being directed through government channels to get to the drive-through collection sites that have been set up throughout the United States.

On the challenges that come with making these specialized swabs

There's a lot of science to it and we have patents for flex swabs. And the material itself is special. The swab itself has got to meet certain standards and there's a lot of work that goes in before you put a swab on the market for use.

On the company's efforts to meet the unprecedented spike in demand

We are hiring as many people as we can because, where we are in rural Maine, it's difficult to find people. But today, with many people losing their jobs, it's been easy to get temporary employees.

NPR's Noah Caldwell, Jonaki Mehta and Justine Kenin produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To test for coronavirus, you need a swab - you know, the long, thin physical instrument that collects a sample from your nose. But not just any swab will do. You need a specialized swab made from specific materials, which is now only being made by two companies. The limited supply has led to a shortage in the U.S. and a scramble by those two manufacturers to make more.

We're joined now by Timothy Templet. He's the vice president of sales for one of these companies. It's called Puritan Medical Products in Guilford, Maine.

Welcome.

TIMOTHY TEMPLET: Good afternoon.

CHANG: So can you just first briefly explain what is so special about these swabs? Like, why couldn't doctors use, say, a Q-tip or something else to test for coronavirus?

TEMPLET: The swab handle is very flexible, which allows the handle to reach the nasopharyngeal cavity to collect the specimen. The standard wood cotton or Q-tip does not have the ability to bend through the nasal passage to go to the area that the sample is collected in.

CHANG: I see. OK, so tell us what the past few weeks have been like for you. I mean, what kind of demand are you seeing compared to what you would expect normally at this time of the year?

TEMPLET: It's overwhelming, to be frank. We are running now six days a week, two shifts, 10 hours a day. We are producing over a million of that particular swab a week...

CHANG: Wow.

TEMPLET: ...To service what is needed here in the United States. And a lot of it now is being directed through government channels to get to the drive-through collection sites that have been...

CHANG: Yeah.

TEMPLET: ...Set up throughout the United States.

CHANG: And why can't other companies just start making these particular swabs? Are they quite difficult to make?

TEMPLET: Yes. There's a lot of science to it, and we have patents on our flex swabs. And the material itself is special. The swab itself has got to meet certain standards. And there's a lot of work that goes in before you put a swab on the market for use.

CHANG: So what are you doing now to meet this unprecedented spike in demand? How are you reimagining your supply lines? Or are you hiring a lot more people? What's going on?

TEMPLET: Yes. We are hiring as many people as we can. Because we're - we are in rural Maine, it's difficult to find people. But today, with many people losing their jobs, it's been easier to get temporary employees. And as soon as we get them in and they get vetted, they are trained. And they're put on machines to wrap the product or other activities that go on to complete the process of making the swab.

CHANG: So I have to ask - I mean, given how much the trajectory of this pandemic may depend on testing and given how much testing may depend on the supply of these particular swabs, how much pressure are you just personally feeling right now?

TEMPLET: There's a lot of pressure. But I think what's happening now is there's so many new rapid test manufacturers who have been approved, eventually, it's all going to even out because you only can use - you only need so many millions and millions of swabs at the end of the day. And each different platform will be utilized for COVID testing today and in the future.

CHANG: But personally speaking, I mean, has this time been particularly stressful for you?

TEMPLET: (Laughter) Yes. I've been - I've worked every day straight since March 11.

CHANG: Wow.

TEMPLET: You know, and I have to say that our employees are incredibly strong. They're dedicated. They're honored to help during this period of time. You know, we've had to keep them sanitized. We try to keep them at a distance. We take their temperatures every day. And that's a chore when you have 300-plus people.

CHANG: Yeah.

TEMPLET: But I'm proud of them, and they're proud of what they're doing. So I think that's - you know, it's just not me or the company. It's them because they are the company. And they are the people that are servicing the United States and the world.

CHANG: Well, hang in there. We do appreciate all your help at this time.

TEMPLET: Well, thank you very much.

CHANG: Timothy Templet is the vice president of sales for Puritan Medical Products in Guilford, Maine.

Thank you very much for talking to us today.

TEMPLET: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.