More than a year after COVID-19 hit Maine, testing for the virus has become an integral part of the fight against the disease. And the Guilford company that’s one of the world’s two major producers of COVID-19 testing swabs has opened two new manufacturing plants in the past year, and has a third new one on the way.
By next year, Puritan Medical Products expects to produce up to 200 million nasopharyngeal and foam virus testing swabs each month at four plants — one in Guilford, at its two facilities in Pittsfield that have opened in the past year, and at a plant in Tennessee where the company expects to start production by the end of the year.
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The company will be producing about 10 times the number of swabs it was producing a year ago. But it’s working up to that target as more Americans receive the COVID-19 vaccine, ultimately reducing the coronavirus’ spread and, presumably, demand for virus testing.
However, the demand for the specialized testing swabs, which were in short supply at the start of the pandemic, will persist.
Many Americans will need to continue to receive COVID-19 tests for at least the next year, said Kelly Wroblewski, director of infectious disease at the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Health officials need to ensure that COVID-19 variants aren’t eluding the vaccine, and that those under 16, who are not currently approved to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, aren’t spreading the virus, she said.
COVID-19 testing and the swabs used for them will always be necessary, just as testing has continued to be necessary for other viruses for which people are vaccinated, including the measles and mumps. Plus, she said, the U.S. has learned the importance of keeping medical supplies, including swabs, in the national stockpile for the next public health emergency.
However, the level of testing Americans will need if the country maintains herd immunity is still unclear, Wroblewski said. She said it depended on how long the immunity from the vaccine lasts and how many people get the virus despite receiving the vaccine.
After that, what could dictate the demand for testing swabs, Wroblewski said, is whether the U.S. uses the same test-intensive approach it developed for COVID-19 for future disease outbreaks. Americans have never been tested for any infectious disease as much as they have for COVID-19. They had taken nearly 380 million COVID-19 tests as of April 2, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What’s unclear at this point is how we as a society adapt going forward,” Wroblewski said, “if we’re going to transition into this being something we do more routinely in the long-run.”
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At Puritan, company leaders are confident the demand will be there for swabs. The federal government has now invested about $400 million in the company to bankroll its rapid expansion during the pandemic. By comparison, total sales for Puritan and its sister company, Hardwood Products Co., were $55 million in 2019, according to court documents.
“The world has learned of the importance of testing in any outbreak,” Puritan’s executive vice president of sales, Timothy Templet, and General Manager Scott Wellman said in written responses to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “We will have the capacity to supply the known demand and surge for higher production if necessary.”
Templet and Wellman said they expect disease surveillance testing will continue in homes, businesses and schools, especially when there are concerns over outbreaks.