What stocks are trying to make a coronavirus vaccine?

Numerous companies are trying to tackle the biggest challenge facing modern-day society by attempting to make vaccinations and treatments for the coronavirus. We outline what stocks to watch in these testing times.

How are pharmaceutical and life science firms battling coronavirus?

Pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical and life sciences companies are all racing to find a vaccine against COVID-19 as well as treatments and diagnosis tests to help combat the virus.

There are over 50 vaccine candidates at various stages of testing, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), ranging from preclinical to those already being tested on humans.

It is an issue that requires collaboration among the industry, not only to accelerate the pace of research but also ensure there is the manufacturing capacity needed to produce the vast quantities that will be required if a viable vaccine is found. The delivery method range from injection and inhalation to oral tablets.

Some are trialling new candidates while others are examining whether existing drugs could be effective either as a vaccination, a treatment, or even both. Although governments are fast-tracking candidates to ensure they can be made as soon as possible, they still need to be rigorously tested before being used on the wider public. Importantly, existing drugs that have already been approved to treat or vaccinate against other diseases could be distributed much quicker if they are proven to be effective against COVID-19, although some of those trying to create new drugs from scratch are moving at an impressive pace.

How to buy and trade stocks trying to make a vaccine for COVID-19

Below, we look at 14 stocks and partnerships that are trying to produce a vaccine, treatment or diagnostic test for the COVID-19. All of them have seen their share prices experience sharp and volatile movements as the coronavirus has grown into a pandemic.

Although investors have got excited by the prospect of investing in a game-changing breakthrough, not all of them will succeed and will see their price fall back down as their valuations become over-stretched.

For example, London-listed Synairgen has risen over 750% since the start of the year, while Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Novavax, Vaxart and Vir Biotechnology have all more than doubled in value. On the other hand, some big-name stocks fighting the coronavirus have seen their share prices slump as the outbreak worsens, such as Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, all of which could rise if they are successful in their efforts.

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Inovio Pharmaceuticals

Inovio Pharmaceuticals says it is the ‘leader’ when it comes to creating a potential vaccine, stating it developed a candidate within three hours of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus being released. It also says it is the ‘only company with a phase-three vaccine for a related coronavirus that causes MERS’.

Inovio has big ambitions – it wants to clear all the regulatory hurdles including trials by the end of the year, but it also wants to have 1 million doses ready to go. It accelerated its development in early March after starting work in January. Human clinical trials are expected to start in the US, China and South Korea before the end of April, with results due in ‘Fall 2020’.

‘We plan on delivering one million doses by year end with existing resources and capacity. However, we will need additional resources to scale up to make enough doses to help protect Americans from COVID-19 as well as to lead global efforts to curtail this virus,’ Inovio said.

Moderna

Moderna is another early mover hoping to create a vaccine. The company found a potential candidate and started producing it within just two days of the genetic sequence being released and the first doses to be used in a US phase-one clinical trial were shipped on 24 February. This means it was ready to begin testing within just 42 days.

Still, the trials will take at least a year. It said the study will provide two doses to 45 patients, 28 days apart, and that it would ‘be followed through 12 months after the second vaccination.’ That implies the earliest we can expect data would be in April 2021. Moderna says it is ‘actively preparing for a potential phase-two study’.

‘We believe our mRNA vaccine technology offers potential advantages in the speed of development and production scalability, which positions Moderna to potentially develop a vaccine against coronavirus, 2019-nCoV,’ said chief executive officer (CEO) Stephane Bancel.

Synairgen

Synairgen is a London-listed company that specialises in respiratory illnesses. The company launched plans to start a clinical trial of a potential treatment on 18 March, with the first patient being dosed on 31 March.

It said it has ‘received a number of requests’ for its candidate, SNG001, which is inhaled, to treat individuals outside the trial, but says it can’t fulfil them for regulatory reasons.

‘We are delighted to get this trial underway with the dosing of the first patient. The team has worked tirelessly and intensively with the relevant authorities and collaborators to get to this stage, and we now look forward to recruiting more patients and completing the trial as soon as possible. A successful outcome from this trial in COVID-19 patients would be a very important step towards a major breakthrough in the fight against this coronavirus pandemic,’ said CEO Richard Marsden.

Novavax

Novavax said it had started analysing potential vaccine candidates in late February. It is currently looking at candidates that work on animals before picking the best one that can start to be tested on humans by the end of spring.

‘Our previous experience working with other coronaviruses, including both MERS and SARS, allowed us to mobilise quickly against COVID-19 and successfully complete the critical preliminary steps to engineer viable vaccine candidates,’ said Stanley C Erck, president and CEO of Novavax.

‘Now that the protein has been expressed stably in our baculovirus system, we aim to identify the optimal candidate and scale up production of sufficient vaccine for preliminary clinical trials. We are now well-positioned to advance the COVID-19 vaccine candidate to phase I clinical testing in May or June.’

Pfizer and BioNTech

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced in the middle of March that it was trying to make its own antiviral therapies to fight the coronavirus before it revealed it was also teaming up with BioNTech, which usually focuses on cancer medicines, to create a potential vaccine.

The pair are building on an agreement struck in 2018 that has seen them trying to create a vaccine against influenza using BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine programme called BNT162. They now hope the same programme can create a vaccine against coronavirus and said it is ‘expected to enter clinical testing by the end of April 2020’. The two firms are using research and development sites in both the US and Germany.

‘We believe that by pairing Pfizer’s development, regulatory and commercial capabilities with BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine technology and expertise as one of the industry leaders, we are reinforcing our commitment to do everything we can to combat this escalating pandemic, as quickly as possible,’ said Mikael Dolsten, chief scientific officer and president of worldwide research, development and medical at Pfizer.

Gilead Life Sciences

Gilead Life Sciences is hoping an existing drug that it has been developing for more than ten years can be used as a treatment for those suffering moderate to severe symptoms of coronavirus. Remdesivir has not yet been approved or licenced to treat anything, but it has also undergone testing for similar conditions SARS and MERS, which has provided hope that it could be a prime candidate for COVID-19.

The company launched two phase-three clinical studies in late February that involves around 1000 patients in both the US and China, and it has since launched tests in the UK and Europe too. The first results are expected to start trickling through in April.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals announced it was developing new vaccine and treatment candidates in early February and is now chasing several avenues to make progress.

One avenue is a collaboration with Sanofi. The pair already work together on Kevzara, which is used to treat arthritis, and they are hoping it could help in the fight against COVID-19. A clinical trial of 400 patients began in the US in mid-March on people that were already hospitalised by the virus, stating it could ‘play a role in driving the overactive inflammatory response in the lungs of patients who are severely or critically ill with COVID-19’.

The pair launched phase 2-3 trials in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Canada and Russia at the end of March. Sanofi is taking charge of the trials being conducted outside the US.

Separately, Regeneron is hoping to develop a ‘antibody cocktail for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19’, with the hope of starting human trials within months. It hopes the candidate could be used to both treat people with the virus and prevent people as a vaccine.

Regeneron plans to initiate large-scale manufacturing by ‘mid-April’ and said there is ‘potential’ to enter human clinical studies by early summer. Regeneron is planning to be producing ‘hundreds of thousands’ of doses of any potential vaccine each month.

Dynavax

Dynavax is one of many companies that have started to form alliances with others after the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), a global organisation coordinating with health authorities and businesses launched in Davos in 2017, began encouraging collaboration to come up with a vaccine for COVID-19.

Dynavax is working with the University of Queensland on a potential vaccine as a result, and has made its proprietary adjuvant, CpG 1018, available to others trying to find one.

Adjuvants are sometimes added to vaccines to improve the response of the immune system, which can help provide better and longer-lasting immunity. CpG 1018 is already used in a vaccination against Hepatitis B and has been approved by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

It also unveiled a separate partnership with Chinese clinical stage biotech firm Clover Biopharmaceuticals on 24 March. Clover has a vaccine candidate and will use Dynavax’s ‘technical expertise’ and adjuvant in preclinical studies.

‘Having one of the largest in-house, commercial-scale CGMP biomanufacturing capabilities in China, Clover could potentially rapidly scale up and produce large quantities of a new coronavirus vaccine,’ Dynavax said. Importantly, adhering to Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) means it meets manufacturing regulations enforced by the FDA.

GlaxoSmithKline

GSK has also answered the calls of CEPI and providing its expertise in adjuvants to the industry. It has also teamed up with Clover Biopharmaceuticals and providing its adjuvant in the hope it can help aide the Chinese firm’s vaccine candidate.

‘GSK is a leader in the development of innovative vaccines using different adjuvant systems. An adjuvant is added to some vaccines to enhance the immune response, thereby creating a stronger and longer lasting immunity against infections than the vaccine alone. The use of an adjuvant is of particular importance in a pandemic situation since it can reduce the amount of antigen required per dose, allowing more vaccine doses to be produced and made available to more people,’ GSK said in early February.

Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson is taking a multi-pronged approach to the coronavirus and is also confident it can deliver groundbreaking progress in a very short time frame. Having started work in January, the company unveiled a lead vaccine candidate at the end of March, and said it had two ‘backups’ to examine if necessary.

‘Under an accelerated timeline, the company is aiming to initiate a phase-one clinical study in September 2020, with clinical data on safety and efficacy expected to be available by the end of the year. This could allow vaccine availability for emergency use in early 2021,’ Johnson & Johnson said.

Ultimately, it is aiming to provide ‘global supply of more than one billion doses of a vaccine’. The company is also examining potential treatments for the coronavirus in addition to a vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson has developed investigational vaccines for previous outbreaks such as the Zika virus, and its Ebola vaccine is still deployed in parts of Africa. It has put serious sums behind its plans, stating the company and the US government had ‘committed more than $1 billion of investment to co-fund vaccine research, development, and clinical testing’.

Vaxart

Vaxart launched its programme to find a vaccine at the end of January. The company prides itself on developing vaccines that can be taken orally rather than injected, and believes this could be an edge in the race to find a solution.

‘We believe our oral tablet vaccines provide substantial potential advantages, especially when targeting mucosal pathogens such as flu, norovirus, RSV and the recently emerged coronavirus,’ said CEO Wouter Latour. ‘In addition, the logistical advantages of an oral vaccine that is administered using a convenient room temperature-stable tablet could be of critical benefit when rolling out a major public health vaccination campaign.’

‘Perhaps more importantly, we recently demonstrated that our oral H1 influenza vaccine protects against respiratory infection based on mucosal immunity, the first line of defence for “mucosal” viruses like influenza and this new coronavirus. We believe this puts Vaxart in a unique position to develop an effective vaccine that protects the population from COVID-19,’ the CEO added.

At the end of March, Vaxart announced it had produced five potential candidates which would undergo preclinical testing. The best one will be manufactured so they can be used in clinical trials ‘early in the second half [H2] of 2020’. It has already found a manufacturing partner in Emergent BioSolutions, which will create the initial doses for the trials.

Vir Biotechnology

Vir Biotechnology is one of the most collaborative stocks searching for ways to fight the virus. It is concentrating on antibodies, which can be used as either a potential vaccine or as a treatment for those that already have it.

Its two main partners are WuXi Biologics and Biogen. Vir said on 25 March that it had identified ‘multiple human monoclonal antibody development candidates that neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19’. This has been shared with its two partners and the group are hoping ‘human trials can begin within three-to-five months’. It has since partnered with Generation Bio to see if its non-viral gene therapy platform can further its research efforts. Other partners include Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.

Takeda Pharmaceuticals

Takeda Pharmaceuticals said in early March that it was developing a potential treatment for patients with COVID-19 and was analysing whether its existing suite of products could also prove to be effective treatments for infected patients.

‘Hyperimmune globulins are plasma derived-therapies that have previously been shown to be effective in the treatment of severe acute viral respiratory infections and may be a treatment option for COVID-19. As a leader in plasma-derived therapies with more than 75 years of experience in the development of plasma-derived products, Takeda has the expertise to research, develop, and manufacture a potential anti-SARS-CoV-2 polyclonal H-IG, which Takeda is referring to as TAK-888,’ Takeda said.

Takeda said it was working with partners and health authorities in the US, Asia, and Europe to speed up research of TAK-888.
‘This requires access to source plasma from people who have successfully recovered from COVID-19 or who have been vaccinated, once a vaccine is developed. These convalescent donors have developed antibodies to the virus that could potentially mitigate severity of illness in COVID-19 patients and possibly prevent it,’ said the company.

Heat Biologics

Heat Biologics said its Zolovax unit had formally launched a programme to find a vaccine that could potentially help in ‘treating or preventing infection’ of the coronavirus in early March. It also said it had taken steps to protect its property by filing for a ‘provisional patent for use of its technology platform’ being used to find potential vaccines or treatments. It then formed a ‘COVID-19 advisory board’ formed of four experts that understand the coronavirus and other areas such as respiratory diseases, immunotherapy and vaccines.

Heat Biologics is also working on a potential test for COVID-19 with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. ‘The new, patient-friendly test will require a simple pharyngeal throat swab to deliver on-the-spot results on a paper strip in under 30 minutes,’ Heat Biologics said on 23 March .


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