People line up for PCR and Rapid Antigen COVID-19 coronavirus tests on Wall Street in the Financial District in New York on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Credit: Ted Shaffrey / AP

The company that operates a Maine factory making a widely used rapid test for COVID-19 said it would increase production by 40 percent in January amid widespread shortages of the tests before the holidays.

Abbott Laboratories makes the BinaxNOW COVID-19 rapid home test in its Westbrook and Illinois factories. It is making 50 million tests per month now and plans to be making 70 million a month in January. The self-administered test provides results in about 15 minutes.

“We’re sending them out as fast as we can make them,” John Koval, a spokesperson for the Illinois-based company, said.

Three boxes of a take-home rapid antigen COVID test sit on table in Ellsworth on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The ramp-up comes as the rise of the omicron variant has led to surging cases in Maine and nationwide. Worker shortages in pharmacies that conduct the most involved and reliable form of COVID-19 testing have left Americans more reliant on home tests in recent weeks, leading to many “out of stock” signs at pharmacies and shipment backlogs online.

The Abbott tests figure to be a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s efforts to fight the new variant. He plans to announce on Tuesday that his administration will make 500 million tests available to Americans at no charge, send more resources to the health care sector and ramp up vaccination drives.

The company will run its U.S. factories round-the-clock, hire more workers and invest in automation, Koval said. He did not specify how many people might be hired in Westbrook, but he said some already had been hired in Maine and Illinois. The company has been making BinaxNOW tests in the U.S. to help ease potential supply chain disruptions, he said.

The Abbott Laboratories factory in Westbrook that makes a 15-minute COVID-19 test, BinaxNOW. Credit: Courtesy of Abbott Laboratories

The rapid test has been selling well, with the company telling investors in January that it sold $2.4 billion worth of coronavirus tests, mostly rapid ones, in the last quarter of 2020. Sales dropped in June, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated people without symptoms no longer needed to be tested.

Abbott, which has operations in Westbrook and Scarborough, laid off about 300 workers in July in Westbrook and another 2,000 at its Illinois plant. Another setback came in August, when the New York Times reported that workers at the Westbrook factory had been told to destroy inventory of the tests, an allegation that Abbott refuted. The company said it had been storing some test kit components that were in short supply during the pandemic so it could scale up quickly if needed.

The company has been actively monitoring the mutations of COVID-19 to ensure its tests can detect them, Koval said.

“We have already conducted an assessment of the omicron variant and we’re confident our rapid and PCR tests can detect the virus,” he said.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...