The country needs tens of millions of nasal swabs if it’s going to test enough people for COVID-19 to safely reopen the economy, but swabs are in short supply. A consortium of academics, medical workers, and manufacturers have joined forces to relieve the bottleneck through 3D printing.
Existing swabs are primarily manufactured by two major companies in the United States and northern Italy. But like many businesses, they’ve been impacted by the virus and have had trouble ramping up production. 3D-printed swabs offer a compelling alternative, as they can be produced quickly, cheaply, and at scale. The consortium hopes to supply hospitals and healthcare facilities with as many as 4 million swabs a week. “With 3D printing, we can bring new designs to the market very quickly, and [the quality of the printers] are good enough to print things that work in the field,” says Chris Prucha, founder and CEO of the San Francisco 3D printing company Origin.
Origin is one of four validated 3D printing manufacturers that ship directly to healthcare providers. When California ordered residents to shelter in place, Origin’s team of designers, engineers, and scientists initially put their efforts toward developing PPE, such as open-source face shields. But those were ultimately a “stopgap solution,” Prucha says. 3D printing isn’t as cost-effective and doesn’t scale as well as traditional manufacturing for simple designs, like face shields. Swabs are more complicated to design and require more precision, because they have to enter a patient’s body through the nose and up the nasal passage to get a sample. That’s something 3D printing does well.
Traditional swabs are made of different materials to form a soft swab tip and a stiff handle. Origin’s swabs are made from a single material with a Voronoi lattice design, which is typically used for other medical applications. The structure has a composition that allows it to become quite rigid when it’s printed densely but flexible if the lattice has room to breathe. So the 3D-printed design is thin at the top and gets gradually thicker throughout the neck and handle. That means it’s firm enough for a medical professional to grip but also feels soft and (relatively) comfortable as it moves through a patient’s nasal passage.
Origin can currently print up to 1,500 swabs on its Origin One 3D printer in less than eight hours. But it will need to print a lot more if it’s going to help offset the shortage. Prucha says the company is now working on a new material for the swabs that can reduce costs and print time (down to four hours for 1,500 swabs). Origin also recently signed a partnership with fellow 3D printing manufacturer Stratasys to produce and sell more swabs to hospitals and testing centers in California.
One problem is that the FDA does not provide clear instructions on how to 3D-print test swabs, says Maxim Lobovsky, cofounder and CEO of the Massachusetts-based 3D printing company Formlabs. Formlabs got its start on Kickstarter eight years ago and went on to pass $1 billion in valuation in 2018 in part by creating printers that could produce high-resolution medical equipment. The company has an ISO 13485 facility, which means it can print FDA-approved medical devices, like respiratory mask adaptors, face shields, and tubing splitters for ventilators. Test swabs were a natural evolution, but they haven’t been without challenges. “The last time they (the FDA) were involved in certifying a new swab design was 40 years ago, so we have been working closely with them to figure out what they think is required,” Lobovsky explains. “We have been doing testing with hospitals [where they] test our swabs and traditional swabs in the same patient to make sure they get the same results.”
Currently, Formlabs is producing 450 swabs a day per printer (they currently have more than 200 printers working on printing the swabs). That figure could increase if the company can procure more machines to meet demand. “Based on what we’ve heard, America’s total production [of swabs] is a few million per week, and we’re trying to add another 1 million per week to that with our own production,” Lobovsky says. “We’re taking requests directly from healthcare providers, and we’re working with healthcare distributors because they have a better idea of where they’re needed . . . we’re also in contact with the White House about a large federal government purchase.”
The stakes are high. States are rushing to reopen, amid scant testing and contact tracing, both of which are crucial for bringing the virus to heel. “The 3D printing industry consortium has agreed collectively [to print] tens of millions of 3D-printed swabs,” Prucha says. Whether they can do it fast enough remains to be seen.