COVID-19 News

ORNL, Sandia team with Coke bottlers to make test tubes for COVID-19 kits

Coca-Cola Consolidated, Inc. on June 1 announced that Southeastern Container (SEC), a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) preform and bottle manufacturing co-operative funded and managed by a group of Coca-Cola bottlers, has begun producing test tubes for use in COVID-19 kits. Utilizing several injection molding preform tools, the manufacturing co-operative has already produced more than 7 million tubes for testing kits.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collaborated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to identify manufacturers who could address a supply chain gap of COVID-19 test collection tubes to support the increasing testing needs of states.

“When the US Dept. of Health and Human Services reached out to ORNL for assistance in finding a COVID-19 test tube solution, we considered several options to help industry scale up production," said Lonnie Love, lead scientist for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s COVID-19 advanced manufacturing initiatives. "Through a personal connection and discussions with Coca-Cola Consolidated, 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.”

At ORNL’s request, Coca-Cola Consolidated provided samples of their preforms and the laboratory worked with COVID-19 testing company Longhorn Vaccine-Diagnostics to confirm that the tubes met test kit criteria.

“There is a global shortage of cryotubes available to meet the need for our PrimeStore Molecular Transport Medium, said Dr. Luke T. Daum, Chief Scientific Officer at Longhorn Vaccines. “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.”

Love had an answer within 24 hours.

“Longhorn called us and said, “Coke is it!’” Love said. “It’s this type of collaboration that shows the true impact of industry and national laboratories working together. ORNL and Coca-Cola bottlers solved a huge problem. Coca-Cola bottlers had an answer to a problem they did not know existed, and by connection with ORNL, they will now be supplying millions of preforms for COVID-19 testing kits throughout the US.”

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory worked with Coca-Cola Consolidated to determine whether soda bottle preforms, which are small plastic tubes heated and blown into a bottle shape to hold carbonated beverages, can be used as test tubes in COVID-19 kits. These kits include a swab, saline solution and a plastic tube to enclose the swab during transport. Soda bottle preforms are the perfect size to hold the long COVID-19 swab. The soda bottle preforms also contain a screw-top cap that is tamper-proof and safely seals the tube, preventing leakage and exposure during transport.

Once the test tubes are produced, sterilization is usually required before they can be used in test kits. Sandia National Laboratories is using its Gamma Irradiation Facility and a team of radiation science experts to develop protocols for sterilizing the preforms without damaging the materials.

“This collaboration is going to be key for plugging gaps in the supply chain for COVID-19 tests,” said Randy Schunk, lead engineer for Sandia’s COVID-19 advanced manufacturing projects. “Gamma irradiation is an efficient and common way to sterilize medical supplies in bulk. Sandia is doing the research and development to find the right level of gamma radiation to sterilize the tubes without damaging the components, plastic or the tubes’ seals.”

Sandia’s protocols will be shared with medical sterilization facilities around the country that receive tubes from Southeastern Container to sterilize.

ORNL engaged a diagnostic company, Longhorn Vaccines-Diagnostics in San Antonio, Texas to confirm that the soda bottle preforms are compatible with their COVID-19 testing systems. Five testing companies that conduct COVID-19 tests within the US are currently in line to begin using the preforms. ORNL conducted additional testing on the tubes confirming that the preforms were leak proof and that bacteria growth could be prevented by heating to a high temperature or cleaning with an ethanol solution.

The preforms will be manufactured by SEC, based in North Carolina, which is a co-operative funded and managed by a group of Coca-Cola bottlers. SEC can produce more than 7 million test tubes per week, helping to reach US testing goals.

ORNL’s collection tube manufacturing research efforts are conducted in coordination with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and funded in part by the Department of Energy Office of Science through the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory, a consortium of DOE national laboratories focused on response to COVID-19, with funding provided by the Coronavirus CARES Act.

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