Photo: Christiano Betta, Creative Commons License 2.0

After a string of stories about amateurish, inadequate companies getting big government contracts for stuff like hurricane relief supplies or desperately needed medical equipment for the coronavirus pandemic, we were ready to be shocked and disgusted by this Los Angeles Times story. The piece, headlined "Syringes are key to coronavirus vaccine delivery. Trump is relying on two untested suppliers," is about two fairly small companies that have been awarded huge contracts to provide millions and millions of hypodermic needles and syringes, in anticipation of the eventual development of a COVID-19 vaccine. But after reading it, we're merely concerned, not actively freaked out, and with this administration built on weaponized incompetence, "concerned" is almost as good as "reassured"!

Now, to be sure, there are reasons for concern, as we'll get to in a moment. But the two companies profiled in the piece both have an established history of delivering medical supplies as part of government contracts. The concern here is whether they'll be able to scale up their operations enough to meet the need. But at least they didn't just incorporate a week before winning the contracts, and they aren't trying to tackle big government contracts after only working in the event catering and destination-wedding business.

Yeah, this is where three and a half years have Trump have left us: relieved that this is "only" a question of whether two smallish companies will be able to fulfill some massive contracts. But at least both companies already know which end of a syringe should be pointy.


The two companies, Retractable Technologies Inc., of Little Elm, Texas, and Marathon Medical Corp., from Aurora, Colorado, have both been in business more than a hot minute, and are small but known entities. Retractable actually manufactures needles and syringes, and has "been trying for years to become a bigger player in the syringe market." Marathon doesn't actually make any medical supplies, but as a distributor, it has "a long track record of filling substantial purchasing agreements with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies."

The big question is whether either company will be able to deliver the vast numbers of syringes and needles that will be needed for a nationwide vaccination effort, whenever a vaccine (or more than one) is developed, tested, and ready to use. Even if tens of thousands of anti-vaxx idiots opt out of getting a vaccine, getting 320 million Americans vaccinated will be a huge task:

Vaccinating that many people could mean the U.S. would need up to 850 million syringes in 2021 to cover an expected COVID-19 vaccine — which could require two doses — plus the usual annual demand for syringes used for flu shots, insulin and other treatments. Under pre-pandemic capacity, that could take two years to produce.

Retractable Technologies received an $83.8-million contract in May, to produce "an undisclosed number of syringes and needles" for COVID-19 vaccines. The LA Times notes that single contract amounts to "double the company's entire 2019 revenue, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission." Retractable also said in a filing with the SEC that when the pandemic first hit, its supply lines from China were disrupted, but that "[W]e believe we have sufficient inventory to fulfill demand."

Marathon, too, is pretty small for the job it's being asked to do. It received an order for "$27.4 million worth of syringes and needles, with an option to go up to $54 million," although before the pandemic hit, the company had just 29 employees and had never taken on a contract for more than $3.1 million.

OK, now this is starting to sound more like some of those other stories, even though at least this time there don't appear to be any would-be arms merchants or vodka distillers in the mix. We bet they won't even try to deliver soda bottles and call them sterile medical containers!

But whether either company can meet the need is open to question:

The government orders for Retractable and Marathon, signed May 1, are for a combined 320 million syringes and needles by April 30, 2021. The orders were made under the Defense Production Act, requiring the companies to prioritize the government's needs.

Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor who has developed programs to help public health departments prepare for disasters, says he's concerned that Retractable and Marathon could prove to be "grossly inadequate" to respond to the challenges ahead.

He pointed to what he called the "very insufficient-looking manufacturing and distribution capacities" of the two firms.

The story also points out that the country's biggest syringe manufacturer, Becton, Dickinson and Co., aka BD — the thermometer people! — hadn't even been in on the coronavirus vaccine game until last week, when the Department of Health and Human Services signed an $18 million deal to have BD deliver 50 million syringes by December. BD will also be expanding its manufacturing capacity, although the new production lines won't be up and running until next July. Other existing medical suppliers are ramping up capacity to supply syringes, too, and as far as we can tell, there's not a ballpoint-pen maker in the bunch.

At the very least, Retractable and Marathon's HHS contracts went through a normal HHS competitive bidding process, and their bids beat out one other contractor's. Remember how government used to work that way?

Thank you for joining us for another edition of Minimal Competence Theater.

[LAT / Photo: Christiano Betta, Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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