Supply shortages have rocked the world in the past few years. Everything from computer parts to couches suddenly have waiting lists, and though life seems to be returning to a sort of pre-pandemic normal, the bumpy transition has brought continuing shipping shocks and supply shortages to industries around the world.

The healthcare industry is of course not immune to these shocks. While the beginning of the pandemic may have been marked by a shortage of PPE, today, the shortage dominating headlines is a bit less predictable: iohexol iodinated contrast media (ICM).

Clinicians understand the often life-saving effects that imaging studies using IV contrast can have for patients, from detecting brain bleeds or clots to assessing the growth or recession of a tumor, or even determining how the body’s organs are functioning.

The reason for this shortage is simple. While most American ICM is nominally made by General Electric under the names Omnipaque and Visipaque, it is largely produced in China — and while the US has mostly returned to pre-pandemic work schedules, in China, the nation is far more cautious about the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

That’s why when there was a recent COVID outbreak in the Chinese factory producing ICM, the whole plant shut down, per NBC. The same article quotes an estimate that “around 50 percent of U.S. hospitals and imaging centers likely use GE’s product.”

While the plant is currently returning to normal operations, the return is slow-moving. GE initially told buyers in May that there would be an 80% reduction in supply for 6 to 8 weeks, compensating for this by shipping newly produced orders by plane instead of by boat.

Now, GE has told buyers that the plant has resumed operations at a limited capacity, though it is unsure when output will return to normal. Additionally, GE noted in a statement to the Radiological Society of North America that the company is “utilizing our other global plants wherever we can.”

GE has also told hospitals that they are welcome to find other sources of contrast during the shortage.

“All of our customers, irrespective of contract, are able to source supply from alternative vendors if available,” GE told Health Imaging.

However, this may prove difficult given the incredible demand. Health Imagining says that several vendors are not accepting new clients, and professionals interviewed by the RSNA are instead discussing rationing and finding ways to make due with the supplies they already have.

“With guidance from the institutional pharmacy, there are ways we can safely take single-use products and make them multiuse, but it has to be done in the appropriate environment and with the appropriate equipment,” explained Andy Bierhals, MD, MPH, vice chair, Quality and Safety at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, St. Louis in an interview with RSNA. “This is where working with the pharmacy and other teams is really going to be imperative.”

The American College of Radiology recently released a list of guidelines on this topic, making sure to note that “the recommendations are not exhaustive or prescriptive” and they are simply “intended as a resource for imaging providers and their institutions to continue to provide high-quality patient care during times of shortage of contrast media.”

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is predicting that stocking levels of the fluid will return in July 2022, per CNN. The article also notes that GE’s source plants have nearly returned to full capacity.

Nonetheless, much like the recent baby food shortage, this has shown the weakness of the US’ current system that largely depends on single providers for needed goods.

In order to prevent events like this from happening in the future, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf told members of Congress in a hearing last month that dramatic changes need to be made to our supply chains.

“The [medical devices and supplies] industry has fought us tooth and nail on requiring that there be insight into their supply chains,” Califf said to Congress, quoted by CNN. “We’d like to be able to stress-test and prevent these things from happening, rather than waiting until they happen and then scrambling…We have known for some time that the supply chain is too skinny and too lean, and we need to ‘fatten it.’”

We will keep you updated as this situation develops.