Roche to make hundreds of millions of COVID-19 rapid tests monthly: CEO

FILE PHOTO: CEO Severin Schwan of Swiss drugmaker Roche addresses the company's annual news conference in Basel, Switzerland January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Roche plans to boost rapid COVID-19 antigen test production to hundreds of millions monthly, including possible saliva tests, Chief Executive Severin Schwan said on Thursday, acknowledging the fierceness of the pandemic’s second wave took him by surprise.

Schwan said Roche’s production of so-called PCR tests for the new coronavirus, which are more accurate than the antigen tests and have been a testing mainstay since the pandemic began, will likely never exceed “double digit” millions monthly, due to capacity limits.

Consequently, as coronavirus cases soar globally and European countries including Germany and France introduce new restrictions, they are turning more to antigen tests from Roche, its South Korean partner SD Biosensor Inc., and rivals like Abbott Laboratories and Siemens Healthineers to keep up with demand now outstripping supply.

“The market is totally sold out,” Schwan said on a call with journalists, adding Roche is now scrutinizing antigen tests that rely on saliva -- rather than the uncomfortable nasal swab -- for their accuracy, in hopes of adding them to its lineup.

Two weeks ago, Schwan said he expects Roche to meet its full-year sales growth targets, in large part because he did not see a renewed “healthcare lockdown” where hospitals turn away non-emergency cases and patients avoid doctor visits.

On Thursday, however, Schwan acknowledged the surge of second-wave COVID-19 cases gripping Europe, and his company’s home country of Switzerland, had taken him off guard and that he would not exclude hospitals’ increasingly putting off elective surgical procedures, as intensive care units fill with coronavirus patients.

“I have to admit, I have been surprised, in particular in Switzerland, with how quickly infections rose. I wouldn’t have thought such a thing a month ago,” Schwan said. “It’s not as if we should panic, but we are slowly arriving at a level where it is critical.”

(This story removes unnecessary apostrophe in 6th paragraph)

Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields