Abbott's COVID test sales reach all-time high—and maybe for the last time, the company says

Abbott’s sales have once again been buoyed by COVID-19 tests—and in a big way. Diagnostic sales last quarter reached a new high point going back all the way to the start of the pandemic, bringing in more than $3.3 billion worldwide.

That figure strongly outpaces the $2.3 billion collected over the fourth quarter of last year and shatters the company’s previous $2.4 billion record set in the fourth quarter of 2020. This year's first-quarter sales was led by its rapid screening products like the card-based BinaxNow test, while lab-based and molecular diagnostics for COVID-19 saw steep year-over-year declines.

But despite the large boom in sales—powered by a $1 billion U.S. government contract and a new omicron subvariant on the rise—Abbott said it expects the first three months of the year to make up the lion’s share of 2022’s coronavirus testing revenue.

The company projects COVID-related sales will top out this year at about $4.5 billion, with the majority made before July, as mask mandates are lifted and demand for tests wanes as the pandemic’s emergency slowly continues to morph into everyday life. However, Abbott pledged to update those forecasts quarterly.

While omicron’s first wave sent COVID-19 case totals to over 5.5 million per week in the U.S. by mid-January, by mid-April those numbers have dropped to under 225,000, according to figures collected by Johns Hopkins University. Yet, officials have noted that the actual number of COVID-19 cases is probably higher, given the increase in at-home testing.

“I do think that there's going to be an opportunity for COVID testing to play a role in this kind of endemic state,” Abbott CEO Robert Ford said on a call with investors. “What COVID has allowed us to do is to further accelerate what we believe was a key trend in diagnostics and point-of-care diagnostics, which is the expansion and the decentralization of that testing outside of the lab into pharmacies and into people's homes.”

Excluding COVID revenues, Abbott saw first-quarter sales swell 3.9% compared to last year's first quarter to about $8.6 billion—driven by double-digit gains in medical devices for heart failure and electrophysiology as well as in diabetes care. Sales of its FreeStyle Libre continuous glucose monitor alone, for example, reached about $1.0 billion, 20.4% growth since the start of 2021.

The FreeStyle Libre received expanded reimbursement in Japan last March to cover all people who use insulin to manage their diabetes. Prior to that, Abbott scored a green light from the FDA that broadened the use of its CardioMEMS monitoring implant for tracking worsening heart failure, allowing its use in a much larger number of patients.

Earlier this month, Abbott received approval for its leadless Aveir pacemaker, featuring a long battery life and the ability for the device to be retrieved through a minimally invasive procedure if necessary.

Meanwhile, the company’s nutrition division reported a 19% drop in U.S. revenues following the February recall of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powder-based baby formulas produced by a single plant in Michigan after consumer reports of bacterial infections and the death of one infant.

Abbott’s COVID testing sales rode a roller coaster over 2021 after sales dried up faster than expected over the summer following the widespread availability of vaccines—leading the company to slash its plans for R&D spending and lay off staff on its diagnostics manufacturing lines. The appearance of the delta and omicron variants turned those sales around in the latter half of the year, while forcing the company to scramble to rehire hundreds of workers.