The Great Vaccine Race

Big and small stocks race to cure the coronavirus. Can there be more than one?

Anthony Russo
    Apr 06, 2020 12:05 PM  PT
The Great Vaccine Race
author: Anthony Russo   

Last month, President Trump signed an $8.3 billion bill that provides emergency funding in efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Of that bill, $3 billion went towards vaccine research. Since then, multiple U.S. biopharma companies have stepped up their efforts in finding a vaccine. 

Mid-Cap Moderna Makes Moves

One company working on a vaccine is Moderna Inc. (Nasdaq: MRNA). Last month, the Massachusetts-based company began its first human clinical trial at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle with funding support from the National Institute of Health. The news sent its stock as high $34.98 per share later in the month, soaring 64%. While it subsequently lost some ground, Moderna's stock rebounded, hitting a 5 week high of $35.66 per share on Friday. The Massachusetts-based company's Chairman Noubar Afeyan told CNBC on Thursday that the company expects to enter phase two trials in spring or early summer.

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(Yahoo Finance: MRNA)

Johnson and Johnson Selects Lead Vaccination 

The pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) has ramped up its production on its $1 billion vaccines. In business for more than 130 years, Johnson has selected its lead vaccination candidate for the coronavirus. However, this one won't take 130 years, as Johnson expects to conduct a phase one study in September and hopes to have a vaccine ready for emergency use in early 2021. 

Johnson along with Moderna struck deals with the U.S. government to produce "massive quantities" of coronavirus vaccines, as Reuters reported last week. While Johnson has been a loser for most of the year, it has seen some nice gains over the past couple of weeks. As of midday Friday, Johnson has surged 19% since Mar. 23.

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(Yahoo Finance: JNJ)

Inovio to Begin Human Trials Next Month

Another U.S.-based company working on a potential vaccine for the coronavirus is Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Nasdaq: INO) The COVID-19 vaccine, which is called INO-4800, said that it plans to test 40 healthy volunteers today after its received positive results. The news sent Inovio's stock nearly 9% higher to $8.43 per share. While last month has been up and down for Inovio, it hit a high of $9.32 per share last Monday.

Inovio's stock dropped later in the week but has gone up significantly compared to its beginning of the year penny stock trading. Before the end of the year, Inovio intends on having 1 million doses of its vaccination available for emergency use.

Novavax Also In on the Action 

Maryland-based Novavax, Inc. (Nasdaq: NVAX) has been working on developing a vaccine for the coronavirus. Through a partnership with  Emergent BioSolutions Inc. (NYSE: EBS), the company hopes to quickly move the vaccine candidate into clinical stages. Human testing is expected to begin by the end of spring 2020, according to Novavax.

Aside from the COVID-19, Novavax has watched its shares pick up momentum. That occurred after it reported positive results from its Phase 3 trial for its seasonal flu vaccine, NanoFlu. The following week, Novavax said it was strengthening its partnership with Emergent. Under the agreement, Emergent will provide molecule-to-market contract development and manufacturing to help produce NanoFlu. Early on Monday, Novavax carried a trading high of $16.59 per share, representing a surge of nearly 55% from a couple of weeks ago.

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(Yahoo Finance: NVAX)

Foreign Vaccine Players 

While the U.S. has dominated the global biopharma market for years, some foreign-based companies have gotten in on the action for the COVID-19 vaccines. One is the Chinese vaccine developer CanSino Biologics Inc. (HKEX: 6185)

The Tianjin-based company, said last month that its drug candidate Ad5-nCoV, which was co-developed with the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology received approval to begin clinical testing. According to CanSino, it was the first vaccine to reach phase one in China. Since the report, CanSino has watched its stock jump by nearly 100% to HK$157.60 per share, as of midday Monday.

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(Yahoo Finance: 6185) 

Another is the global pharmaceutical company Sanofi (Nasdaq: SNY). The France-based company entered the race by announcing a partnership with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in February. At the time, Sanofi said it was expecting to have a vaccine candidate to test in a lab within six months. It also noted it could be ready to test people within a year to 18 months.

Luckily for Sanofi, vaccinations aren't uncharted territory for the company, as it has successfully developed ones for yellow fever and diphtheria. The company also has another partnership with U.S.-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Nasdaq: REGN) Under the collaboration the two parties have developed a treatment that relieves pain and swelling for patients dealing with rheumatoid arthritis called Kevzara.

In March, the two companies commenced clinical testing with Kevzara for those suffering from severe COVID-19 infection. Last week, Sanofi announced it treated its first patient outside the U.S. in its global Kevzara COVID-19 trial.

The news sent Sanofi's stock 5% higher to $44.69; the stock is now trading at $46.00 per share as of early Monday. 

Others Joining the Fight With Treatments and Tests

While not every health and biopharma company is working on a vaccination, some are working on treatments and testing for the COVID-19, which include Abbott Laboratories, (NYSE: ABT) Gilead Sciences, Inc., (Nasdaq: GILD) and CytoDyn Inc. (OTC: CYDY) 

The most recent news has surrounded Abbott, as its five-minute COVID-19 tests have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week. As a result, Abbot watched its stock leap to a 30-day high of $84.40 per share. Abbott is planning on delivering 50,000 testing units each day.

California-based Gilead has been testing its Remdesivir drug against the coronavirus, which was the same treatment that failed against the Ebola virus. However, this time around the drug is making good progress, as the company got the green light from the FDA to pursue phase 3 studies globally.

"It interferes with the ability of the RNA virus to reproduce itself, interfering with the total number of viral particles that can invade different organs, particularly the lung," Rear Admiral Richard Childs, said of remdsivir.

Last month, Gilead said it was planning to expand access to Remdesivir to accelerate its emergency use for multiple severely ill patients.

As for CYDY, that company is currently running a phase two trial to mitigate the coronavirus. The Vancouver/Washington-based company announced last week that the FDA allowed its experimental drug called Leronlimab to move forward. CYDY has studied Leronlimab as a treatment for patients with HIV and a form of metastatic breast cancer. Now it's also being explored as a treatment for mild-to-moderate respiratory conditions for the COVID-19.

Last Monday, the stock in CYDY skyrocketed to a nine-year high of $3.50 per share. That mark represents a leap of 250% from its 2020 opening price.

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(Yahoo Finance: CYDY)

It Can Take a While to Develop a Vaccine

No question, the companies we listed have mostly seen some strong market performance for their efforts in developing a vaccine and treatments for the coronavirus. Moderna may be well ahead of everyone else, as its CEO Stéphane Bancel noted on Wednesday that its potential vaccine already is manufacturing enough to support the second and third phases of clinical trials.

But how long could it take to find a vaccine? Paul Hudson, the CEO of Sanofi told CNBC's Jim Cramer that "ordinarily it takes 10 years to invent a vaccine".

"The main reason is because you've got to give it to a lot of healthy people on a massive scale," Hudson said on Mad Money.

However, Moderna may be able to beat that time table and have one ready in the fall, which would be eligible for emergency use and have availability for some people, it said in a filing in March.

Public health officials have estimated that it takes 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine, which includes regulatory review/approval, clinical stages manufacturing, and quality control processes. It would likely be within that timetable in regards to a commercially available vaccination, as Moderna, further reported in the filing. Sanofi is also looking to complete the vaccination process in 12 to 18 months.

Johnson & Johnson, which will initiate human studies of its lead vaccine by September at the latest, has a goal of supplying more than one billion doses globally. Johnson said that the vaccination could receive emergency use authorization in early 2021.

The Case for Chloroquine  

While companies are working on treatments for the COVID-19, there are anti-malaria drugs that President Trump believes to be a "game-changer;" these drugs are chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. The two drugs have been used to treat and prevent malaria for more than 75 years. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of if not the country's leading expert on infectious diseases, questioned the lack of evidence on whether the drug seemed promising enough to help fight COVID-19.

"The information that you're referring to specifically is anecdotal," Fauci said last month

He added, "It was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So, you really can't make any definitive statement about it."

However, with desperation increasing, the FDA has issued an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. Some preliminary but non-peer-reviewed studies show that the drugs may help treat COVID-19, especially when combined with anthramycin, which is used to treat bacterial infections. Many doctors have warned of serious side effects and advised those with serious heart conditions shouldn't take it. Influenced by Trump, an Arizona man was found dead after taking chloroquine in March to prevent getting the coronavirus.

The good news is there is a glimmer of hope, as the hydroxychloroquine helped speed up the recovery for a small sample size of patients who were mildly ill from the coronavirus, as doctors in China reported last week. While it will still take weeks if not months to tell if it truly works, New York Gov. and democrat Anthony Cuomo said on Monday that hydroxychloroquine in the states' hospitals has been "anecdotally" positive.

More studies on malaria drugs are needed of course, but with coronavirus cases in the U.S. passing 200,000 cases, we may be forced to try it. With the health of both the American people and the American economy at stake, time is of the essence.