When we face a challenge as a nation it’s not unusual for government and industries to work together to tackle it. Businesses are problem-solvers by nature and COVID has presented many opportunities for companies across the country to find solutions to combat the virus.
Carmakers converted assembly lines to make ventilators for COVID patients. Drug companies are testing vaccines to inoculate billions of people. Beverage companies developed face shields for frontline workers out of plastic sheeting and they created convenient hand sanitizer bottles for doctors and nurses.
When the need for more COVID testing of Americans became apparent, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services faced another issue: a global shortage of safe, secure “cryotubes” in which to place swab samples from patients for delivery to laboratories for testing.
HHS asked Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee to help locate a company that could make millions of these tubes fast, so an employee at the lab mentioned the problem to an acquaintance at Coca-Cola Consolidated in Charlotte, N.C. Coca-Cola Consolidated got in touch with Southeastern Container, a bottle manufacturing co-operative for a group of Coca-Cola bottlers. Southeastern believed it had the perfect fit.
“We determined the preform that goes into a blow molding machine to make Coca-Cola bottles looked exactly like the test tube needed for the COVID-19 testing kits,” said Lonnie Love, lead scientist for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s COVID-19 advanced manufacturing initiatives.
Beverage bottle “preforms” are small plastic tubes that are heated and blown into a variety of bottle shapes. The preforms feature a screw-top cap that is tamper-proof and safely seals the tube, preventing leakage and exposure during transport. But could they hold the swab and saline solution without contamination? And could they be mass-produced quickly?
The answer was “yes,” said Dr. Luke T. Daum, chief scientific officer at Longhorn Vaccines. Daum had been considering several industry options when the beverage bottle preform was found.
“Coke bottlers have done what no other vialing company could do. In a few short days, they have fabricated a small, ruggedized vial from a plastic preform that does not leak, is large enough to hold any swab type and, importantly, they can make millions of tubes per week,” he said.
As Doug Wehrkamp, President and Chief Operating Officer of Southeastern Container explained, “They needed a certain length and diameter and we had a mold that met that need. We sent samples off to get tested and they worked perfectly. And they are durable and seal perfectly with no leakage.”
With hardly any time needed to wrap up production, Wehrkamp estimated that Southeastern has manufactured and shipped over nine million of the preforms for COVID-19 test kits to states from California to Maine. And they have the ability to make more than seven million preforms in a week’s time.
“Everyone was willing to work with each other and share what they knew, it was really collaborative,” Wehrkamp said.
Love, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, agreed.
“It’s this type of collaboration that shows the true impact of industry and national laboratories working together,” he said. “ORNL and Coca-Cola bottlers solved a huge problem.”
Dave Katz, president & COO of Coca-Cola Consolidated, said his folks are always grateful to find a way to help out the community in a time of need.
“In every community across our country, the local Coca-Cola bottler has always been active in serving its community – and this crisis is no different,” Katz said. “Through a series of personal connections, we discovered the opportunity to contribute to the effort to increase COVID-19 testing capacity quickly. For over a hundred years, our family of Coca-Cola bottlers has been honing the production process to serve consumers, and we are honored and excited to pivot that expertise to helping keep Americans safe and healthy.”