A global shortage in PPE raw materials is threatening critical glove supply

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By Sean Keller

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on personal protective equipment (PPE) like never before. Once simply part of the attire for those working in industries such as healthcare, automotive, industrial, construction, food and beverages; PPE is now part of every individuals’ daily routine. As such, the industry has struggled, and we’ve seen various issues come to light since the start of the pandemic. 

At the beginning, we saw PPE shortages threatening to derail the critical work being taken on by frontline healthcare staff, with a report from The National Audit Office in June stating that the only stockpile available to meet increased demand for PPE in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak was the one built up in anticipation of a pandemic flu crisis and it did not contain critical equipment needed. We also saw care homes and other healthcare institutions and businesses unable to get hold of vital PPE, with many having to secure their own supplies as NHS trusts were prioritised.  

We subsequently saw a myriad of stories about fake PPE – products claiming to have certain certifications but not actually providing protection. After one million face masks were intercepted at East Midlands Airport and found to not have the relevant quality, marking, certification and documentation, the Office for Product Safety & Standards began clamping down on this risk to ensure the right PPE goes to the right healthcare workers.

The PPE industry is now under threat from a worldwide shortage of nitrile – the material used for gloves that enables protection for longer periods of wear. We estimate that the worldwide shortage in gloves is between 20-25billion gloves per month at present, and according to the Malaysian manufacturers’ association MARGMA, worldwide demand is projected to rise from 296 billion in 2019 to 330 billion this year. With glove manufacturers flat out currently, this isn’t a deficit that will quickly be resolved. 

Due to current shortages in nitrile raw materials, glove manufacturers are converting some production lines over from nitrile to latex, to ensure production capacity is kept running to a maximum and supply continues. So, what do healthcare institutions need to know? 

Nitrile Vs. latex

There had been a conversion over to nitrile gloves in recent years due to concerns around allergies relating to latex. Although Type I reactions to the proteins contained in natural rubber can be quite severe, the percentage of those effected is extremely small. Most reactions fall into Type IV, which is a sensitivity or irritation rather than an allergic reaction and is often caused by the chemicals used in the formulation of all gloves, including nitrile.

Modern manufacturing lines include a long leaching stage, which is more effective for the  removal of extractable proteins (causing Type 1 allergy) and residual chemicals (Type IV skin sensitivity). 

As a result, many National Health Services and other industries are starting to re-accept latex gloves back into general use. It must be noted that 90% of all surgical gloves used today never migrated away from latex. Healthcare institutions should be aware of this change so that they can start validating latex gloves where possible. 

The switch to latex

Although the majority of surgical gloves used today are indeed latex, those that will be switching over from nitrile to latex can be confident in the protection provided by latex gloves. 

Latex offers protection against bacteria, bloodborne pathogens and viruses, while also being highly resistant against alcohols, acids, alkalis, ketones and other types of contaminants. The material also provides superb grip and high comfort and flexibility. 

Additionally, there’s now a financial benefit to latex gloves too as the declining availability of raw materials has pushed the price of these materials up by up to 400% compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

What’s ahead for PPE

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a huge amount of pressure on the worldwide demand, manufacture and supply of PPE. For the production of gloves, we’re adding ten new production lines to our capacity by the end of this year. While this helps to increase the production of gloves in general, it does not unfortunately change the situation with access to raw materials. 

Healthcare institutions need to be aware of the factors impacting the market and ensure they plan accordingly. It’s critical that healthcare providers aren’t caught short on PPE again so those relying on nitrile gloves now need to make the shift to latex. The stark reality is that moving forward healthcare institutions may face the challenge of either using latex gloves or none at all. 

Sean Keller is Managing Director of ASAP Innovations.

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