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Coronavirus update: Moderna targets vaccine approval by year's end as reopenings continue

·Senior Reporter
·4 min read

Encouraging developments in the race for an effective treatment, and the gradual relaxation of restrictions that have crushed the global economy, momentarily eased fears on Monday over the coronavirus’s relentless march across the globe.

All eyes were on Moderna (MRNA), which sparked a big rally on Wall Street after announcing promising early trial data of a coronavirus vaccine that is the furthest along among U.S. biotechs in the race. Its stock skyrocketed by 20% intraday on Monday.

The data showed lower doses of the vaccine were effective in keeping the virus at bay and stimulating antibody production.

CEO Stéphane Bancel told Yahoo Finance in an interview that the company anticipates submitting for FDA approval by the end of the year, and that affordability is key to wide distribution. In a research note, Morgan Stanley estimated the pandemic lasting into 2022 could be a $10 billion to $30 billion market, with U.S. firms pricing vaccines between $10 to $20 per treatment.

However, Bancel said that “this is not a product where we’re going to want to maximize profit.”

After the Monday trading session closed, Moderna offered $1.25 billion in common stock through Morgan Stanley, with proceeds to be used in part for production of its coronavirus vaccine.

In a call with analysts Monday, Moderna’s CEO said that the company is focused on meeting what is expected to become unprecedented global demand for its drug. The 9-year old Moderna is competing against industry giants like Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Pfizer (PFE), Sanofi (SNY) and others which are equipped with big manufacturing plants to produce millions of doses at-risk.

Moderna previously signed a deal with Swiss drug manufacturer to produce one billion doses per year.

The company previously announced it had received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to enter Phase 2, and estimated Monday that would begin in July. One concern for moving on to Phase 3 is the status of the pandemic at the time, a Moderna executive said on a call with investors Monday.

If there are not enough cases to provide a large enough pool of patients, that could pose a problem. The effects of reduced cases can be seen in China, where Gilead Sciences (GILD) had to halt trials of its antiviral treatment due to low enrollment.

And while vaccines are seen as a key to ending the global pandemic, some think there’s too much optimism surrounding the timelines for a viable treatment.

David Walt, a Harvard University professor and co-leader of the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation, told Yahoo Finance that vaccines may not be as effective as everyone is hoping. Questions are swirling around the meaning of antibodies in recovered patients — and how long they will last or what degree of protection they offer.

“Testing and retesting. That’s it. That’s the answer,” he said, speaking about an effective way to control the outbreak on a sustained basis. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

The new ‘Space Race’

Meanwhile, the race for a vaccine has become nothing short of a geopolitical power battle. Biotech investor Brad Loncar told Yahoo Finance those developments are likely to be used as political tools.

“You want to be the country that gives your country vaccines to show you’re the greatest,” the CEO of Loncar Investments said.

“The analogy I’m using is biotech is going to be like what the Space Race was during the 50s and 60s,” he said. The U.S. is slowly starting to wake up to this, but is behind by at least a few months, the investor added.

China is ahead with multiple options, the furthest along being CanSino, which has partnered with the military and is being supported by the government.

“That’s why it’s gone so fast, they are treating this like a military operation,” Loncar said.

At the earliest, China is set to have a vaccine approved by fall, which matches the most aggressive timelines of major biotechs in the U.S. Yet if a vaccine is approved, it will likely only be for emergency use, with broader market availability in early 2021.

“Based on current projections from the leading candidates that could be available to the US population, those manufacturers are unlikely to reach a few hundred million doses in aggregate until (the first half of 2021),” according to Morgan Stanley.

Meanwhile, the World Health Assembly met Monday with significant pressure on China and questioning of its role in the global outbreak.

President Xi Jinping said China is focused on a global response effort and is contributing $2 billion over 2 years for economic and social development in affected countries — especially developing economies. He has also called for a globally united effort to find a vaccine.

The measure contrasts with the U.S. approach, which has pulled funding for the World Health Organization, over concerns of its deference to China during the outbreak, and is touting a vaccine development program for Americans.

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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