In the early stages of the COVID pandemic, as most of the world sought hope amid soaring death tolls and sinking economies, a New Jersey company looked ahead and readied itself for the moment when a medical solution would arrive.
Anticipating the development of vaccines as well as a red-hot worldwide demand for its products, Becton Dickinson, the world’s leading syringe manufacturer, ramped up production at plants in the U.S., Asia, and Europe early in 2020.
Hundreds of millions of orders poured in from across the globe and in response, the Franklin Lakes-based company produced 1 billion more needles and syringes than in a typical year, an increase of more than 2,000 a minute.
“There was such an aggressive time frame for the vaccines that governments wanted them by the end of 2020 or early 2021,” said Troy Kirkpatrick, a BD vice president. “We tried to push out as many as we could. By the end of last year, we had more than 300 million delivered around the world.”
In the fight against COVID, the hastily developed vaccines are the stars of the story. But the inoculation of billions also requires billions of syringes, and BD and its competitors here and abroad have been working overtime to churn them out.
“This is the type of global health challenge BD was built to address,” CEO Tom Polen wrote in a letter to shareholders.
The company, which manufactures medical devices, medical supplies, lab equipment, and diagnostic products, has 70,000 employees and operations in 50 countries. It reported $17.1 billion in revenue in 2020, with sales of its syringes and other injection devices accounting for $3.6 billion. Its stock closed at $239.39 on Friday, just a little higher than three years ago.
Most of America’s COVID needles come from BD’s four Nebraska plants and one in Connecticut, places that already were operating around the clock to make the injection devices needed for annual flu shots, childhood vaccines, and everyday medical uses.
“That’s why we started contacting governments so early,” said Kirkpatrick. “When you’re going to need billions of additional devices, even for a company like ours that already makes multiple billions, it takes time. And we didn’t want to impact existing production.”
Despite the surge, BD has hired very few new workers, according to spokesperson Alyssa Kretlow, instead tweaking existing procedures to accommodate the additional output.
“For some new lines, there might have been increases in the work force, but in general those facilities were already going 24-7,” said Kretlow. “What we’ve been really able to do to is use our flexibility and offer our employees additional training.”
While BD has produced conventional 1- and 3-milliliter syringes for this vaccination effort, it’s also made millions of low dead-volume syringes, which are designed to minimize empty spaces and limit waste.
A recent Food and Drug Administration ruling permitted low dead-volume syringes to extract six doses from each vaccine vial. Traditional needles had a maximum of five.
Made of stainless steel and plastic or glass, the syringes are packed and shipped, not to pharmaceutical firms to be filled with medication, but to federal government warehouses where they are then distributed to states, either in bulk or as part of pre-packaged vaccine kits.
“Traditionally we go through distributors and then our customers order through them,” Kirkpatrick said. “But with COVID, it’s been the government placing the orders and doing the distributing.”
Shipped in glass vials, most of the COVID vaccines require refrigeration. BD’s needles arrived at their destinations empty, unlike those that are pre-filled and used for, say, flu shots. That required a new learning curve for many countries, especially in Europe.
“In Europe, where there are mostly state-run health systems, the governments were used to buying vaccines for their populations,” said Kirkpatrick. “But almost all were given in pre-filled format. They never had to worry about ordering the injection system separately. So we had to educate them.”
Most of these COVID devices used in the U.S. also have safety caps to prevent accidental sticks, a necessary precaution since so many of those working at the sites have never administered shots before.
Founded in 1897, BD produced the first hypodermic needle used for insulin injections as well as the first disposable syringe. Its first major acquisition, in 1904, was the Philadelphia Surgical Co. Major competitors in the injection-device market now include American firms like Retractable Technologies Inc., Smiths Medical Inc., Cardinal Health as well as several Chinese manufacturers.
While the COVID-generated surge has helped its bottom line, Kirkpatrick said, the BD-produced item that had the biggest impact last year was a new diagnostic test.
“While we’re certainly seeing an increase in syringe sales,” he said, “the rapid and molecular COVID tests we developed actually did better for us.”
BD recently partnered with the U.S. government on a $70 million expansion of its manufacturing capacity at the Nebraska plants. That will allow the U.S. to stockpile the devices for future outbreaks.
And should COVID vaccinations continue in years to come, BD anticipates a transition to pre-filled syringes.
“Pre-filled is a lot easier, more efficient,” said Kirkpatrick. “You don’t have to draw vaccine out of a vial, which typically involves some waste. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but if the demand spikes, we want to be ready.”