Abbott Laboratories will temporarily more than double its Maine workforce to produce a new rapid, inexpensive COVID-19 test.

The Illinois-based company already employs 800 people at a lab and manufacturing plant in Scarborough and a plant in Westbrook. It aims to hire another 1,200 employees for the Westbrook plant to produce a new $5 rapid COVID-19 test that gives results within 15 minutes. The Food and Drug Administration this week granted emergency use authorization to produce the test. Of the 1,200 new jobs, 300 will be permanent, 900 temporary, Abbott said.

Sea Neak and Patricia Phillips, production specialists, at the Abbott facility in Scarborough in 2018. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Production will begin in September and ramp up to 50 million tests per month in October, company officials said. Currently, the United States has the capacity for about 25 million tests monthly, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project website.

The White House announced Thursday that it had struck a $750 million deal to acquire 150 million tests from Abbott to be deployed in nursing homes, schools and other areas with populations at high risk.

Kimberly Lafleur, senior manager of public affairs for Abbott, declined to give the pay scale for the 1,200 manufacturing jobs.

Dr. Michael Mina, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said in a series of tweets that the new Abbott test is “terrific news’ and gets the nation a big step closer to tests that can be purchased over-the-counter at a pharmacy and taken at home. Abbott officials say getting the results within 15 minutes, as opposed to days, and the low cost of the test should rapidly expand testing in the U.S. In the spring, Abbott launched another rapid COVID-19 test – also made in Scarborough – that cost $40 per test. Manufacturing production of the $40 test is also only about 10 percent of Abbott’s projected demand for the $5 test.

Mina said the $5 tests are accurate, inexpensive, simple and don’t require other lab equipment, which means “it can be produced in the millions and can actually be used – without being limited or bottlenecked by the availability of (lab equipment).”

The tests are 97 percent accurate, Abbott said in a news release.

But Mina said the Abbott tests will not be available over-the-counter and will still require a health care worker to administer a nasal swab, although one that is less invasive than the nasal swabs that are currently in wide use.

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Abbott Laboratories’ BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 nasal swab test. Photo courtesy of Abbott Laboratories via Associated Press

“So this isn’t necessarily the test that is now going to open up frequent testing at the population level and induce herd effects until a vaccine comes along,” Mina said in a tweet. “But this a great start to get this type of test into use for evaluation to eventually get us where we need to be.”

Abbott is a publicly traded company whose shares trade on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Investors responded favorably to the hiring announcement Thursday, with the company’s share price increasing by about 8 percent in trading to end the day at $111.29 per share.

The Abbott tests are antigen tests, which look for the presence of the virus’s protein, while most of the tests in current use are molecular, which detects the virus’s genetic material.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said there’s always room for more tests, but it’s difficult to say what role the new Abbott tests will play in Maine.

“With a new test, it’s not really for several weeks after they’re in use and we get more data that it becomes known what the real-world accuracy is. We’re going to wait and see,” Shah said.

Joseph Petrosino,  professor of molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in a news release sent by Abbott that the “massive scale of this test will allow tens of millions of people to have access to rapid and reliable testing.” He said the tests will get “infectious people off the streets and into quarantine so they don’t spread the virus.”


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