With COVID-19 test tubes in shortage, Coca-Cola bottlers offer a solution

A PET plastic preform, destined to become either a Coca-Cola bottle or a sterilized transport tube for a coronavirus test kit (Frank Murmann/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

A group of independent soda bottle manufacturers working for Coca-Cola has pivoted to help produce the test tubes needed for COVID-19 diagnostic kits. 

The efforts include a collaboration between the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address this particular gap. 

The coronavirus pandemic and a skyrocketing demand for diagnostics have strained nearly every piece of the supply chain—from the chemical reagents for processing the virus’s genetic material to the one-piece nasal swabs used to collect samples, as well as sterile containers for transport.

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Finding this particular solution took a little luck. Before being heated, shaped and blown into their iconic curves, Coca-Cola bottles begin life as a simple, nondescript, mass-produced plastic tube—which happens to be the perfect size for holding a swab.

“Through a personal connection and discussions with Coca-Cola Consolidated, we determined the preform that goes into a blow molding machine to make Coca-Cola bottles looked exactly like the test tube needed for the COVID-19 testing kits,” said Lonnie Love, lead scientist at Tennessee-based ORNL.

Bottler Coca-Cola Consolidated worked with manufacturing cooperative Southeastern Container to produce over 7 million test kit tubes using their injection molding machinery. 

“Coke bottlers have done what no other vialing company could do—In a few short days, they have fabricated a small, ruggedized vial from a plastic preform that does not leak, is large enough to hold any swab type, and importantly, they can make millions of tubes per week,” said Luke Daum, chief scientific officer at Longhorn Vaccines & Diagnostics, which tested the tubes’ viability. 

“Within 24 hours Longhorn called us and said, ‘Coke is it!’” said Love. “Coca-Cola bottlers had an answer to a problem they did not know existed, and by connection with ORNL, they will now be supplying millions of preforms for COVID-19 testing kits throughout the U.S.”

Longhorn also partnered with Cenetron Diagnostics to produce sample-gathering kits using the preformed Coca-Cola bottle tubes and Longhorn’s PrimeStore Molecular Transport Medium, which is designed to inactivate microbial samples so they can be shipped and stored using less stringent biomedical precautions.

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