Hatfield, Pa.-based injection molder Rodon Group LLC partnered with the Fox Chase Cancer Center research hospital in Philadelphia to develop one-piece nasal and oral collection swabs to test for COVID-19.
The partnership is slated to provide Temple University Health System with testing swabs for the next five years, Rodon CEO Michael Araten told Plastics News. During that time, Fox Chase will provide testing for any further studies or Food and Drug Administration registrations for the Rodon swabs.
When Fox Chase and the rest of the health care industry was short on swabs earlier this year, Eric Horwitz, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, reached out to Araten, a family friend of 20 years, to see if Rodon would be interested in designing a COVID-19 testing swab.
"As the world started shutting down in March, we looked at a variety of our capabilities in injection molding and started to center in on testing," Araten said. "We wanted to see if there was something we could make that met an entire need."
"There are two main companies in the world that make these swabs and one is in the United States and the other is in northern Italy," Horwitz said in an Aug 10 news release. "So as the outbreak was sweeping through Italy, the supply of swabs plummeted."
"They were actually 3D printing their own swabs," Araten said, "just to keep up with the [cancer] patients coming in, because they were testing everybody before any cancer treatment."
Using existing marketed swabs as examples, Rodon designed a swab in just a few weeks that can collect samples from the throat or the nose. The new swabs have shown "improved sensitivity" in testing compared with others on the market, the release said.
Rodon Group finished its first molds in late April and started production of a few thousand swabs a week.
Fox Chase tested the swabs through May and June and helped Rodon obtain FDA approval to provide swabs to other health care facilities.
"We came up with a quick study to test people who were already getting swabbed," Horwitz said. "These patients would be swabbed twice: first with the one Fox Chase had been using and then with the new test swab."
The swab designed by Rodon Group, he said, "actually worked even better than the one we had. It's been just one of many partnerships that has worked out for the common good of people."
"We decided to tool up for a much larger capacity to make somewhere around 50 million a year," Araten said.
Rodon finished work on tooling in mid-August, Araten said, and currently has the capacity to make 1 million a year. It also is waiting to receive packaging equipment so it can individually pack, seal and sterilize the swabs "as is done by large med-pharma companies today," he said.
It will take a few more months to set up that new equipment, he added.
Rodon Group is now talking with hospital systems and medical providers across the United States to assess demand for the swabs.
"Should the need continue to grow, we could easily flex up as needed," Araten said.
Overall, Araten said, Rodon Group has seen an increase in medical product demand in 2020 and expects about 15-20 percent of its sales to be medical for the next two to three years.
The company also makes other components for COVID-19 test kits.
"I think we're seeing more and more that federal, state and local governments, as well as private health systems, want to supply domestically so that they're ready and not reliant on much longer supply chains," Araten said. "I think that's here to say from this particular crisis."
Rodon has had inquiries from both new and existing customers looking to reshore product, he said.
"Our work with ... the Rodon Group is a fine example of how collaboration and innovation among our Fox Chase faculty and staff, industry partners and our own patients help to make possible important advances in science and medicine," Richard Fisher, president and CEO of Fox Chase, said in the release. "In this critical time of crisis, we are proud to work together to enhance the quality of testing and care not only for Fox Chase and Temple patients, but for countless others affected by the COVID-19 pandemic."
In addition to custom molding, Rodon is well known for manufacturing K'Nex-brand plastic construction toys. Rodon sold the assets of the K'Nex business in 2018 but still molds the components.
Rodon ranked No. 153 in the current Plastics News list of North American injection molders, with 2019 sales of $43 million.