Three biotech companies' stocks have risen sharply on news they are developing a vaccine that may treat the deadly coronavirus COVID-19, with one being tested on humans

By Ian Horswill

Posted on February 27, 2020

Three drug companies have announced they are hopeful of a vaccine to treat the coronavirus COVID-19 that is now spreading faster in the rest of the world than in China.

As Brazil, Georgia, Greece, Norway, Romania and Pakistan reported their first cases of coronavirus (COVID-19), the World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a trip to China, where the virus originated in Hubei province, showed that it could be contained.

Fourteen countries that have had cases of coronavirus have not reported a case for more than a week, and even more importantly, nine countries have not reported a case for more than two weeks: Belgium, Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and Sweden, he said.

A confirmed case of coronavirus was named in Northern California, US, in which the person did not have a history of going to places with the virus or known exposure to another person with the virus.

“At this time, the patient’s exposure is unknown,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. “It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19, which would be the first time this has happened in the United States. Community spread means spread of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown.

“It’s also possible, however, that the patient may have been exposed to a returned traveler who was infected,” the CDC added.

The World Health Organisation experts in China found that the epidemic peaked and plateaued between the 23 January and 2 February. Notified cases have been declining steadily since then.

Novavax, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, US, said in a press release issued Wednesday that it has made “progress in its efforts to develop a novel vaccine to protect against coronavirus disease”.

Biotech firm Novavax, which has received funding from Bill Gates in an effort to help with a global health crisis, said it hoped to find “an optimal candidate for human testing by the end of spring 2020”.

“Our previous experience working with other coronaviruses, including both MERS and SARS, allowed us to mobilize quickly,” Novavax CEO Stanley Eck said in a statement. He added that Novavax was hopeful it could begin Phase I clinical testing in May or June.

Shares of Novavax rose by nearly 20% on Wednesday on the news.

Stock markets across the world have lost US$3.3 trillion of value in four days of trading, as measured by the finance company MSCI all-country index.

Biotech company Moderna, with its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the US, said on late Monday that it has already shipped an experimental vaccine to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for testing. Shares of Moderna soared 20% on Wednesday after an over 25% spike on Tuesday.

The remdesivir drug manufactured by Gilead Sciences, a major biotech business based in Foster City, California, was touted by officials at the World Health Organization in a press conference in China on Monday, saying that remdesivir is the only drug that “may have real efficacy” in treating coronavirus patients.

Gilead Sciences, which previously said that remdesivir was successful in treating MERS and SARS, said on Wednesday it had started two late-stage studies to test its experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in humans.

Shares of Gilead Sciences increased by 3% on Wednesday and nearly 5% on Monday.

coronavirus, vaccine

US President Donald Trump said in an Address to the Nation that a vaccine was being developed and “coming along very well”. He also added that his government had sent a US$2.5 billion supplemental budget request for additional money to fight the coronavirus. More than US$1 billion would go toward vaccine development with the other funds going towards stockpiling protective equipment like masks, according to the US Office of Management and Budget.

Trump sought to calm markets and an increasingly worried public, stating that the US was “very very ready” to face the virus threat and that Vice President Mike Pence would be in charge of the national response.

Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn warned the country is “at the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic” with new cases in Germany, France and Spain as cases continued to soar in Italy, which has reported 374 cases of coronavirus, an increase from three in less than a week. Italy is linked to infections in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Greece, North Macedonia and a hotel in Tenerife, Spain, in which 1,000 holidaymakers are in lockdown.