How North Carolina ended up with 283,500 vials of unusable COVID-19 testing material from the federal government

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Thousands of vials containing material critical for COVID-19 testing arrived in North Carolina potentially contaminated and unusable.

North Carolina Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) reported receiving 283,500 vials of unusable material from the federal government over the last few months.

The material known as transport media helps keep individuals' samples protected before they reach the lab.

The unusable supplies could have helped the state conduct 283,500 COVID-19 tests, and comes at a time when shortage of testing supplies remains a concern across the country.

"We've had this challenge since the beginning," said Scott Shone, public health director of NC's State Lab. "I've often called it a supply chain Wack-a-Mole."

During the beginning of testing, swabs were running short, now chemicals used to test samples are facing shortages.

North Carolina wasn't the only state who received contaminated materials.

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South Carolina's public health director, Dr. Joan Duwve, shared similar issues with Palmetto State lawmakers on July 29.

"We have, oh gosh, 50,000 tubes that we can't use because they were either contaminated or there is one kind of tube that if you mix with bleach it turns in to Solpadeine gas and we didn't feel comfortable sending that out to our lab partners," Duwve said during a Testing and Tracing Subcommittee meeting.

Missouri Public Health officials sent out a memo at the end of June warning of supplies from the manufacturer Fillakit.

"If you have received saline media from the Missouri State Public Health Laboratory (MSPHL) and the saline has the labeling of Fillakit please do not use for sample collection until further notice," the memo read.

North Carolina officials said they received 59,500 vials from Fillakit at the end of May, but didn't distribute any of the material.

FEMA awarded a more than $10 million contract with FIllakit to create swabs and medical media.

"We are aware of the issues raised by some states that received Fillakit products. The Food and Drug Administration has determined Fillakit's Phosphate Buffered Saline is not suitable for distribution after analyzing the quality of the media," a FEMA spokesperson wrote the ABC 11 I-team.

The agency also said it has arranged to pick up more than 90% of the shipped products and 231,800 units were never distributed.

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The mistake with the products didn't cost the states anything, but it did cost the federal government. FEMA did not tell the ABC11 I-team how much was spent on the supplies.

"FEMA and our HHS partners remain committed to providing critically needed testing supplies in a timely manner to our state and local partners in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19)," a spokesperson for the agency wrote instead.

Shone said North Carolina receives testing supplies from private vendors along with the federal government, so the unusable supplies did not disrupt testing throughout the state.

"We've had to respond and adjust and so this is just one many things that comes up and was unexpected and the good news is we have a system in place to make sure that we are functioning at high efficiency and high accuracy and that we have access to testing for the residents," Shone said.

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He did admit the supply chain will be a continuous concern throughout the pandemic, and something officials constantly monitor both in North Carolina and across the country.

Adding different types of COVID-19 tests and approving different types of transport media will further help spread out demand.

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"Diversifying methods, using these new rapid methods, looking at what other technology and techniques are available to us will help get through and address any of these other issues that come up," Shone said. "Going to that supply chain Wack-a-Mole, making sure we have as many tools in our toolbox as possible so that we can accurately and effectively respond."
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