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Moderna (MRNA) Stock Is a Winner, But How Much Higher Can It Go?

Vaccine maker Moderna (MRNA) is on everyone’s radar, with shares rocketing from the $20 level in January to over $60 today.

Moderna stock got another small boost yesterday after the inventor of a leading coronavirus vaccine proposal was reported to be nearing a deal to sell its vaccine to Israel. Citing unnamed sources within the Israeli Health Ministry, news site Ynet.com noted that with Phase 2 clinical trials of the vaccine -- mRNA-1273 -- nearly complete, Israel is already "in final negotiations" to buy supplies of the vaccine for distribution to its populace.

Which is great news, but here's the thing: Moderna stock was in fact already primed to go higher even before the Israeli news was announced.

Over the weekend, you see, investment bank J.P. Morgan released an update on a recent discussion it had with Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel and CFO David Meline. In that note, J.P. Morgan analyst Cory Kasimov admitted that he struggles "to appropriately capture COVID-19 in MRNA's valuation given all the unknowns around COVID-19 and the ultimate opportunity." Regardless, Kasimov believes that as progress is made on the mRNA-1273 vaccine, and as the company issues updates on this progress, positive news flow is likely to keep Moderna stock rising at least in the "near term."

So what should investors be looking for from Moderna in the weeks and months ahead?

First and foremost, Kasimov notes that initial data on the Phase 1 study of mRNA-1273 should be just "weeks" away. With Phase 1 complete, of course, Moderna itself already has all the data available "in house" and should be able to write it up in prose form in a matter of days. The trick is that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has control over the precise date for releasing this information. Dr. Anthony Fauci, however, who heads NIAID, has indicated that a release of the data is imminent.

Incidentally, it's unlikely NIAID could sit long on this information even if it wanted to. Providing color to the procedure for issuing its updates, Moderna's management confided that one reason it released initial Phase 1 data in mid-May, rather than waiting for the complete data to be assembled, was out of a desire to adhere to SEC regulation FD, and "out of caution so that the data would not be leaked."

Simply put, with 14 billion ears around the globe straining for any news of a coronavirus vaccine, leaks are going to happen. To get ahead of such leaks, therefore, both Moderna and NIAID have an interest in releasing new data almost as soon as it is produced. On the one hand, this should minimize inside trading on such news. On the other hand, it practically ensures that there will be a steady flow of new updates on mRNA-1273's (and other vaccine candidates') progress, which should help keep the stock prices of vaccine makers rising.

In Moderna's case, this news flow should continue throughout 2020, including a likely "end of September" date for injecting mRNA-1273 into all patients participating in a Phase 3 clinical trial of the vaccine, and culminating in the filing of a Biologics License Application, or BLA, permitting Moderna to produce the vaccine for use in interstate commerce, "by the end of the year."

It remains to be seen, however, precisely how much higher such news can drive Moderna's stock price. Although Kasimov has an "overweight" rating on the stock, he values the stock only at $62 a share. Compare that to Modern's stock price at close of trading Monday -- $66.57 -- and you'll see why this analyst struggles "to appropriately capture COVID-19 in MRNA's valuation." (To watch Kasimov's track record, click here)

Kasimov is somewhat conservative compared to the general Wall Street view here. Moderna has a Strong Buy analyst consensus rating, based on 11 Buy ratings and 2 Holds set in recent weeks. The average price target is significantly higher than Kasimov, at $90.40, and implies an upside potential of 40.5% from the $64.34 share price. (See MRNA's stock-price forecast on TipRanks)

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