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Dec. 23—The manufacturer of a popular over-the-counter COVID-19 rapid test made in Westbrook and Illinois is increasing production as testing demand soars and the federal government prepares to start distributing 500 million tests to Americans.
Abbott Laboratories plans to produce 70 million BinaxNOW rapid tests in January and is prepared to "scale significantly further" in the months ahead, according to John Koval, a company spokesman. He said Abbott currently is producing more than 50 million tests per month.
"We are producing 24/7 and have been hiring new workers since the delta surge and investing in automation to increase output at our U.S. manufacturing facilities," Koval said in an email. "We're seeing unprecedented demand for BinaxNOW and we're sending them out as fast as we can make them."
Koval did not respond to questions about whether Abbott is planning to hire additional people in Maine or what proportion of the 70 million tests targeted for production next month will be produced in the state. He also would not say how many employees Abbott has at its Westbrook and Scarborough facilities. The Scarborough facility produces a COVID-19 rapid molecular test called ID NOW, designed for use in sites such as doctor's offices and urgent care facilities.
Demand for COVID-19 testing has soared in Maine and elsewhere with the holidays approaching and health officials warning of the rapidly spreading and more contagious omicron variant. Drugstore chains Walgreens and CVS announced this week that they will be limiting purchases of at-home rapid tests and warned that some test kits may be temporarily out of stock due to the high demand.
President Biden announced plans Tuesday to make 500 million rapid tests available to Americans for free starting next month. Websites will be set up where people can request tests be delivered to their homes.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the tests would come from "the eight tests approved by the FDA" and that the federal government also would be using the Defense Production Act to ensure as many tests as possible are produced as quickly as possible. It was unclear Wednesday what role Abbott would play in the new initiative.
"We've worked with the government since the earliest days of the pandemic to make our tests available across all settings, both rapid point-of-care test and lab-based tests, and we will continue to work with them to understand more details," Koval said in response to a question about whether Abbott would be involved.
Abbott, which is based in Chicago, has been producing the ID NOW test kits in Scarborough since March 2020 and later expanded into Westbrook, opening up a facility in a former Olympia Sports distribution center. Paperwork filed with the city at the time indicated Abbott planned to hire about 470 people at the Westbrook site.
The company reportedly laid off about 400 people between the two sites in July, however, as demand for tests waned before the delta variant surge. Abbott is currently advertising numerous open positions in Maine on job boards such as indeed.com as well as on its own website, though it was unclear if those jobs specifically involve production of COVID-19 tests.
An assistant account manager at CoWorx Staffing Services, a national staffing agency with an office in Saco that has worked with Abbott in the past, said Wednesday that the agency is working with Abbott but that she couldn't comment further on the terms of their contract.