When the World Health Organization (WHO) says that a certain anti-coronavirus product is a leader, that’s as official as it is in the fast-moving world of COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.
Earlier this year, a senior WHO executive stated that Gilead Sciences‘remdesivir was the leading therapy directed at COVID-19. Remdesivir, of course, has become the de facto standard of care for the new coronavirus disease.
Last week, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stated at a press conference that an experimental COVID-19 vaccine appears to be “probably the leading candidate.” What vaccine is it?
Who is who
Swaminathan believes that the COVID-19 vaccine is being developed by AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) and Oxford University should be seen as the main contender at this time. There are two main reasons why.
First, the AstraZeneca-Oxford AZD1222 vaccine is already in a phase 3 clinical trial. No other COVID-19 vaccine candidate has yet advanced to late-stage testing. Swaminathan specifically noted “how advanced they are” and “the stage they are at” by naming the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford as the likely leader.
Second, Swaminathan said he believes “AstraZeneca certainly has a more global reach right now in terms of where they are doing and planning their vaccine trials.” The AZD1222 final stage test will take place in several countries, with trials already underway in the UK, Brazil and South Africa.
The candidate vaccine was originally developed by the Jenner Institute at Oxford University. AstraZeneca partnered with Oxford in April and owns the rights to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine worldwide. AZD1222 was one of the few novel coronavirus vaccines selected by the Trump administration to receive federal funding as part of Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to rapidly develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.
A closure No. 2
Another COVID-19 vaccine is a close # 2, according to the WHO chief scientist. Swaminathan views Modern (NASDAQ: MRNA) as “not too far” from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Moderna mRNA-1273 COVID-19 messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine is currently in phase 2 clinical trials. Biotechnology plans to start a phase 3 study of the vaccine in July. Like AZD1222, Moderna mRNA-1273 was included in the select group of COVID-19 vaccine candidates receiving federal funds in the Operation Warp Speed program.
Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, is optimistic about the chances of success. He recently said in a CNBC interview that he believes the probability that mRNA-1273 will get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is between 80% and 90%.
A field full of people
Investors must be careful not to trust AstraZeneca to emerge as the winner in the COVID-19 vaccine race just because it is the apparent leader at the moment. Nearly 150 candidates for the COVID-19 vaccine are currently being investigated. Seventeen of them are in clinical trials, with more on the way.
It is impossible to know which, if any, of these experimental vaccines will be successful. It is not out of the question, and perhaps even likely, that multiple drug manufacturers will eventually get regulatory approvals for their COVID-19 vaccines.
The biggest winners from an investment perspective could be small biotech stocks in the race. NovavaxFor example, you have an ongoing phase 1/2 clinical trial for your COVID-19 vaccine candidate. BioNTech, like Moderna, is testing a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine with her partner, Pfizer.
AstraZeneca claims a market capitalization of almost $ 70 billion. The success of your COVID-19 vaccine would definitely be an important catalyst for the stock. But success for a small drug maker like Novavax or BioNTech will surely be transformative for any of the companies.