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Manufacturers rush to ramp up rapid COVID test production as demand soars

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The hottest commodity of the new year may very well be COVID-19 at-home rapid tests. Amid the current surge of infections, demand for the tests has soared. And if you can find them, major retailers, like CVS, Walmart and Amazon, have imposed limits on how many you can buy. Given the fast spread of the omicron variant, the tests have become an important tool for people who want to quickly find out if they've been infected. And last month, the Biden administration announced its plan to distribute 500 million rapid tests to Americans who request them. That and the broader demand from consumers has test manufacturers rushing to ramp up production.

To find out what that looks like and how it's going, we've called the leader of one test manufacturer. Estella Raychaudhuri is president of InBios International, based in Seattle. Estella Raychaudhuri, thanks for joining us today.

ESTELLA RAYCHAUDHURI: Thank you for having me.

FLORIDO: Your company has spent the last few weeks trying to ramp up production of these rapid tests. How many tests were you producing before demand started to surge, and what are your targets now?

RAYCHAUDHURI: Well, we only recently received emergency use authorization for our tests from the FDA. It's been about a little over a month. And so we have been ramping up to get all of our materials in place, our printed materials in place. Our production targets are 2 million tests per week. And then we want to scale up very quickly to 5 to 10 million in the next month or so.

FLORIDO: And what have you done to try to make sure that you get there?

RAYCHAUDHURI: Well, we have been hiring a lot. We have ordered more raw materials as well as working with some other groups to do some of the contract manufacturing, to do some of our final kitting of our product. So these are just a few of the measures that we are taking to ensure that we're able to ramp up and meet the demand.

FLORIDO: We've heard about the supply chain problems that have been plaguing our country for months now. Are they affecting the reach of these goals?

RAYCHAUDHURI: Yes, they are. We have some raw materials, of course, that we thought would last for another month, dependent upon the demand. But the main issue we see is there is a long lead time to get items such as swabs, even printed material. So there is in some cases a 12-week lead time to get certain raw materials.

FLORIDO: Are there things that you think the government could do to help companies like yours get these tests produced faster?

RAYCHAUDHURI: Yes. They can help the raw material suppliers so that they can provide the materials to us more rapidly, prioritize companies that are making these tests. Some of our suppliers have told us that there was a 12-week lead time. But if the government put us as a priority, they would send us the raw materials before other requests they have, as well as the government telling us in advance, like, OK, we're going to purchase X amount of these tests from you in a reasonable period of time so that we can scale up and produce them.

FLORIDO: Well, there were reports over the summer that one major manufacturer of rapid tests not only ramped down production as demand for the tests started to fall last year but went as far as to destroy some of its inventory and also to lay off workers. You run a for-profit company. How do you plan over the medium and long term for how many employees you will need, how much space to rent, how many raw materials to order?

RAYCHAUDHURI: Yes. That is a very difficult situation that I think all rapid test manufacturers are experiencing. So we have to balance risk. And so we actually look at, in our company, at a six-month horizon. So we're planning for the next six months. Beyond that, we don't know what the state of affairs will be. And so we're not going to buy tests that - assuming that the surge will be as great a year from now. I mean, that would be too risky.

FLORIDO: What do you think it's going to take for the supply of rapid tests in the U.S. to actually meet demand? What are the next steps that need to happen in our country?

RAYCHAUDHURI: Well, I think our government has to continue to prioritize testing so that manufacturers such as ours continue to have the incentive and to have less risk to invest in raw materials in making these tests such that they don't end up sitting in our warehouses, you know, unpurchased if the surge goes down tremendously. That will be a big help, if the government would secure a certain amount of them so that we know for sure when we're investing that they're going to get sold.

FLORIDO: That was Estella Raychaudhuri, president of InBios International. Ms. Raychaudhuri, thanks for joining us, and Happy New Year.

RAYCHAUDHURI: Thank you. Happy New Years to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.