Chemical Industry Rises to the Challenge of COVID-19 but What are the Long-term Implications?

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving a global demand for medical supplies, equipment and cleaning agents. In terms of PPE alone, the WHO estimates that there is a world-wide monthly demand for 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles. To meet this demand, the WHO suggests the industry needs to increase production by 40%. The chemical industry is rising to that challenge in multiple ways. From generating more chemicals, like reagents and solvents, from raw materials to switching production lines to produce disinfectants or medical supplies, the chemical industry has shown creativity to meet the needs. But while responding to the immediate crisis, it’s worth considering the longer-term impact of the pandemic on the industry.

The Chemical Industry is a Key Player in Tackling COVID-19

The medical, healthcare and pharmaceuticals sectors are key consumers of chemicals such as raw ingredients, refined reagents, solvents and finished products – and demand has increased dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments across the globe have therefore identified the chemical industry as a critical infrastructure. That means chemical industry workers are maintaining normal work schedules related to all chemical supply chain activities, manufacture, production and transportation of raw materials or finished chemical products.

Chemicals Industry Materials in Demand

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) have created infographics explaining what chemicals contribute to medical equipment, supplies and cleaning products. In terms of value of input materials, chemicals contribute:

  • 75% of materials in cleaning compounds like detergents, disinfectants and hand sanitizers
  • 27% of materials in medical equipment like N95 face masks, disposable gowns and diagnostic equipment 
  • 25% of materials in medical supplies like goggles, gloves, tubing and surgical instruments.

As well as producing intermediary chemicals, such as solvents and reagents, many chemical companies are also producing final products and finished items.

Disinfectants and cleaning agents

Various countries have reported supply chain shortages of the active ingredients used in disinfectants. These include ethanol, propan-2-ol (isopropyl alcohol), benzyl chloride, ethylbenzyl chloride and methyl chloride. Many regulators have responded by giving derogations or regulatory waivers to allow production of non-approved active ingredients or products from non-approved suppliers. The chemical industry has responded by expanding production of active ingredients and final products. Other companies have also pitched in, for example alcoholic drink producers are now manufacturing hand sanitizers or supplying denatured alcohol to disinfectant makers.

See our blog on hand disinfectants to learn more about the change in biocide regulatory approach in Europe.

PPE

PPE is critical in barrier nursing, which is used to manage patients with coronavirus infection to reduce the spread of infection. The WHO provided guidance (March 19, 2020) on optimizing PPE use, with many countries providing tailored public health guidance. The PPE required when working with a COVID-patient includes masks/respirators (N95 or FFP2 standard), gown (or apron), gloves and eye protection (goggles or face shield).

Surgical gowns are often constructed from synthetic fibers like polypropylene or polyethylene. Single use gowns are usually made from non-woven sheets composed of wood pulp and polyester. Gloves are generally made from neoprene, polyisoprene or nitrile. Eye protection like safety visors can be made from polycarbonate, propionate, acetate, polyvinyl chloride or polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG).

PPE levels are running low in many healthcare settings across the world, with many industries, as well as the chemical industry, responding to demand.

Tests for COVID-19

Although different countries have adopted slightly different approaches to COVID-19 testing, they generally test people for two things:

  • Active infection: by measuring the presence of viral RNA using PCR based on swab samples taken from the nose and mouth. This is often referred to as antigen testing.
  • History of infection: by measuring the antibodies that an individual has produced in response to infection with COVID-19. Antibodies are measured from blood samples using immunoassays.

Many companies are scaling-up testing capabilities for PCR and developing antibody tests. For example, LabCorp is performing extensive COVID-19 antigen testing while also developing and validating new assays.

With increasing demand for testing worldwide, concerns about the availability of core test items like reagents, swabs, transport media and test vials have been growing. These are all manufactured using chemicals, many derived from petroleum.

How has the Chemical Industry Responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The response of chemical companies to support individuals and communities during the coronavirus outbreak has been multifactorial and rapid, including:

  • Practical changes in working practices within manufacturing plants and factories to support staff
  • Expanded production of core chemicals and equipment
  • Changes in production lines to manufacture COVID-critical items like hand sanitizers
  • Innovations in product development and working practices
  • Forging of new partnerships and supplier relationships
  • Donations of PPE direct to local hospitals.

The industry should be proud of its response and role in fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s the Longer-term Impact of COVID-19 on the Chemical Industry?

Chemical companies are rightly focused on responding to the current crisis, but with fears of recession on the horizon, the outlook may be challenging. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted issues that may have a longer-term impact on the whole chemical industry.

Long-term Economic Downturn

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) estimates that global economic growth could fall by 3% in 2020 due to the great COVID-19 lockdown, with both advanced and emerging economies in recession. This will have a major impact on demand for chemicals. Variations in industrial demand for chemicals are already being felt, as sectors like the automotive industry are at a standstill.

Re-evaluating Supply Chains

The chemical industry’s supply chain is very dependent on China. With the disruption caused by COVID-19, many companies and governments may be rethinking supply chain security. This may mean looking to alternative sources nearer to home.

Impact on the Regulatory Environment

There has been some relaxation of chemical regulation and monitoring to facilitate the urgent response to COVID-19. There may be a backlash from environmental groups who believe chemical companies see this relaxation as a ‘licence to pollute’. In fact, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have recently filed a lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its revised enforcement monitoring policy.

The current regulatory changes and derogations are intended to be temporary. However, it will be interesting to see if they spark a debate about the value of longer-term relaxations.

Applying Lessons Learned

One key aspect of the response to the pandemic crisis is the way that companies from vastly different sectors have worked together to engineer solutions. This innovative, agile, cross-sector approach may have inspired new ways of thinking and working that could revolutionize the industrial future.

Conclusions

The coronavirus has caused huge numbers of deaths worldwide and may have caused long-term damage to the global economy. The chemical industry has risen to the crisis and continues to respond through the timely production of critical medical and healthcare supplies.

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