UPDATE 3-Becton Dickinson lifts 2021 profit forecast on robust COVID-19 test demand

(Adds comments from conference call, analyst comment)

Feb 4 (Reuters) - Becton Dickinson on Thursday raised its 2021 profit forecast as the medical device maker expects strong demand for its COVID-19 testing kits to extend into the first half of the year.

The company said the tests helped it earn $867 million in the first quarter, and projected 2021 sales of its rapid COVID-19 test kits at the high-end of its earlier range of up to $1.5 billion.

“There will be very strong demand for antigen testing in the first half of the year,” Chief Executive Officer Thomas Polen said on a post-earnings call.

“(But) the second half of the year is less certain, as there remains uncertainty around the effectiveness and timing of the vaccines, especially with additional variants that are out there.”

He, however, expects some COVID-19 testing into 2022.

The comments contrasted with those from rival Quest Diagnostics Inc that predicted an erosion in demand for COVID-19 testing this year as vaccine roll-out intensifies.

Becton, which currently offers two types of coronavirus tests authorized for emergency use in the United States, said it remained on track to produce 12 million COVID-19 antigen tests per month by March.

It has also increased capacity to 1.9 million molecular tests per month.

Morningstar analyst Alex Morozov said the accelerated demand for COVID-19 tests will likely fade, but a sizable installed base expansion bodes well for the diagnostic segment.

“Anticipate Veritor utilization, whether for regular flu or a combined flu/COVID-19 test, to stay strong going into 2022 and beyond,” he wrote.

Becton now has nearly 70,000 Veritor devices in the field, up from 30,000 a year earlier.

The company expects 2021 adjusted earnings per share to be between $12.75 and $12.85, up from its prior estimates of $12.40 to $12.60.

Excluding items, it earned $4.55 per share in the first quarter, beating estimates of $3.11.

Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru, Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips