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Greenville companies partner to patch a hole in COVID-19 supply chain

Ross Norton //July 31, 2020//

Greenville companies partner to patch a hole in COVID-19 supply chain

Ross Norton //July 31, 2020//

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CBT Medical began selling viral transport medium for COVID-19 tests in partnership with Hoowaki. (Photo/Provided)As politicians and policy influencers make a case for bringing the manufacture of critical medical supplies to American soil, a pair of Greenville companies just started doing business together to make sure a critical step in the testing supply chain is not just made in the USA, but made in Greenville.

Hoowaki President Ralph Hulseman said in June he hoped the company’s newest innovation — the NP Collection Swab with Hoowaki Microgrip technology — would make a difference in the national and international battle to gain control over COVID-19. The Hoowaki product is produced through injection molding and therefore can be made faster, in more places and in greater quantities than the standard filament swab.

The product was something of a pivot for the company, which produces microengineered surfaces with a variety of commercial applications, some of them medical. At about the same time Hoowaki was pulling swabs to the front burner, another Greenville company was making a pivot of its own.

CPT Medical was doing a swift business producing surgical medical trays — a variety self-contained kits with all the tools a surgeon needs to perform specific procedures. But the kits for elective surgeries were on the wane as the country battened down to withstand a pandemic. With surgical tray business falling, CPT Medical found a way to keep its workforce busy while contributing to the COVID-19 challenge. They started selling viral transport medium, a solution that makes it possible for the sample swabbed from nostrils to make it to the lab with the integrity necessary to test for maladies at a molecular level,  including COVID-19.

The viral transport medium requires a container similar to a test tube. Securing them in a troubled supply chain of tools, materials and chemicals was a complex challenge that kept CPT Medical’s vice president of commercial operations on his toes.

“Very early on we started to notice service supply chain shortages,” Austin Shirley said. “They were across the board with equipment and reagents and everything else. But number one is collection kits because if you can’t collect it, you can’t test for it, no matter how much reagent you have.”

By summer, CPT Medical had a solid business line making 100,000 COVID-19 test kits a week that used an aspirate collection method approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What they wanted, though, was a swab — or, specifically, hundreds of thousands of swabs.

Before the end of July, Hoowaki said that injection molding technology would enable to the company to produce millions of swabs for COVID-19 testing. (Photo/Provided)“We were using the nasal aspirate kit, which was not the preferred method — even though it was CDC approved — but swabs were the gold standard,” Shirley said. “Hoowaki’s swab allows us to make a complete kit. The two components of a collection kit are a swab — ideally a nasopharyngeal swab — and adding that with our viral transport media, so it’s a complete kit and it’s all U.S. manufactured and it’s all Greenville, S.C., manufactured.”

CPT Medical brought on 25 additional workers and invested in automation equipment. By the end of the month the operation will be fully automated and producing about 200,000 test kits weekly, with swabs. Shirley said he expects about 15 to 20 of the new jobs to become permanent.

CPT Medical and Hoowaki will continue to sell their individual products separately in addition to the kits that contain the products of both. For Hoowaki, CPT Medical is the first big customer for a new product that’s just now going into full production.

“To find a partner just down the street, so to speak, that is aligned with us, the same interests and so on, is just really satisfying to really get things going,” Hulseman said. “It’s very satisfying to have a customer who’s willing to step up and publicly validate that they’re sourcing our swabs, that they value their performance, they value the comfort and quality. And a third thing that is satisfying for me is a lot of small hospitals in South Carolina worry about the big guys buying everything up and not having access. … It’s satisfying to know our product will be used in South Carolina to help South Carolinians get over this crisis. It’s kind of nice to help your neighbors.”

The contract is also job security for Hoowaki employees.

“Going into the first of March and looking at all our customers falling away and COVID-19 started heading in, there was a lot of consternation within the company about being able to keep people employed and this, of course, sweeps away all those concerns,” Hulseman said. “We are able to give people fine jobs and preserve their careers and just do something very helpful.”

For both companies, the Hoowaki swab promises business after the pandemic subsides because the swabs have other applications, including testing for common illnesses such as strep throat and flu.

This story originally appeared in the July 27, 2020, print edition of the GSA Business Report