BALLABGARH, India — In late November, an urgent email popped up in the inbox of Hindustan Syringes & Medical Devices, one of the world’s largest syringe makers.
It was from UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, and it was desperately seeking syringes. Not just any would do. These syringes must be smaller than usual. They had to break if used a second time, to prevent spreading disease through accidental recycling.
Most important, UNICEF needed them in vast quantities. Now.
“I thought, ‘No issues,’” said Rajiv Nath, the company’s managing director, who has sunk millions of dollars into preparing his syringe factories for the vaccination onslaught. “We could deliver it possibly faster than anybody else.”
As countries jostle to secure enough vaccine doses to put an end to the Covid-19 outbreak, a second scramble is unfolding for syringes. Vaccines aren’t all that useful if health care professionals lack a way to inject them into people.
“A lot of countries were caught flat-footed,” said Ingrid Katz, the associate director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “It seems like a fundamental irony that countries around the world have not been fully prepared to get these types of syringes.”
The world needs between eight billion and 10 billion syringes for Covid-19 vaccinations alone, experts say. In previous years, only 5 percent to 10 percent of the estimated 16 billion syringes used worldwide were meant for vaccination and immunization, said Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank in Washington, and an expert on health care supply chains.
Wealthier nations like the United States, Britain, France and Germany pumped billions of dollars of taxpayer money into developing the vaccines, but little public investment has gone to expand manufacturing for syringes, Mr. Yadav said.
“I worry not just about the overall syringe manufacturing capacity but capacity for the specific types of syringes,” he said, “and whether syringes would already be in locations where they are needed.”
Not all of the world’s syringes are suited to the task.
To maximize the output from a vial of the Pfizer vaccine, for example, a syringe must carry an exact dose of 0.3 milliliters. The syringes also must have low dead space — the infinitesimal distance between the plunger and the needle after the dose is fully injected — to minimize waste.
The industry has ramped up to meet demand. Becton Dickinson, which is based in New Jersey and a major syringe manufacturer, said it will spend $1.2 billion over four years to expand capacity in part to deal with pandemics.
The United States is the world’s largest syringe supplier by sales, according to Fitch Solutions, a research firm. The United States and China are neck and neck in exports, with combined annual shipments worth $1.7 billion. While India is a small player globally, with only $32 million in exports in…
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