As monkeypox quickly spreads, a handful of biotechs spring to action
At the beginning of the week, many people hadn’t ever heard of monkeypox. By Friday, that all changed — and now a handful of biotech companies are reaping the benefits.
Emergent Biosolutions’ $EBS stock jumped more than 10% on Friday, four days after the company plumped down $225 million for the rights to Chimerix’s smallpox vaccine. Chimerix’s stock $CMRX was up more than 3.8% on Friday. And Bavarian Nordic $BVNRY — which closed a $119 million deal with BARDA to provide the US government with freeze-dried doses of the Jynneos vaccine — was up nearly 2.5%.
The news comes just a couple days after the first monkeypox case was detected in the US, and on Friday the CDC revealed it’s monitoring at least six other Americans after they came in close contact with an infected traveler earlier this month. Cases are surging in Europe, where Spain has now identified 30 cases, and neighboring Portugal has reported 23.
Make no mistake, though: The current situation is nothing like Covid, according to Norman Baylor, who once directed the FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review and now serves as a consultant.
“The good news is we have a vaccine. Remember with Covid, we had nothing. We were starting from scratch,” he said.
Monkeypox has been around since 1958, when two outbreaks occurred in colonies of research monkeys (hence the name). However, the first human case wasn’t reported until over a decade later in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The US saw an outbreak back in 2003, after receiving a shipment of animals from Ghana, which was contained with testing and vaccination, according to the CDC.
Because monkeypox is similar to (but milder than) smallpox, currently approved smallpox vaccines like Chimerix’s Temblex should offer some protection against monkeypox, according to Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In fact, most older adults are already vaccinated (routine vaccination ended in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the US).
Even though a large population remains unvaccinated, both Baylor and Kuritzkes doubt that the US will need to roll out a widespread vaccine campaign to contain the current outbreak.
Nevertheless, BARDA is paying Bavarian Nordic $119 million to exercise options for a freeze-dried stockpile of Jynneos, which covers both monkeypox and smallpox. Additional options for another 13 million doses through 2024 and 2025 would add up to $180 million.
Paul Chaplin, CEO of Bavarian Nordic, said in an interview with Endpoints News that the company has had a long-standing relationship with BARDA and is ready for whatever comes next.
BARDA’s new option for the Jynneos vaccine is part of a years-old collaboration with Bavarian Nordic to create a vaccine with a longer shelf-life. So the new deal is quite coincidental considering what’s happening in the world, Chaplin said.
However, he was quick to emphasize that Bavarian Nordic has an immediate stockpile and the capability to produce more. It has over a million doses in stock currently for BARDA, most of which is stored at their facility in Denmark.
The company usually sells Jynneos on an ongoing basis, typically manufacturing for order as there hasn’t been much interest in stockpiling for smallpox. However, Chaplin said he expects to begin supplying EU countries in the coming days and is manufacturing more doses as we speak, though he didn’t disclose any of the details.
“I think governments are taking the emergence of new infectious diseases extremely seriously. So I think that’s one thing, which is a positive sign,” he said. “There are a number of governments, Canada, the United States, and actually a few countries in Europe [that] have actually previously purchased Jynneos to stockpile.”
Meanwhile, Emergent snagged the rights to Tembexa, a smallpox treatment for all ages that was approved in 2021, with an anticipated BARDA contract in the wings. The company is eager for a comeback after a report from the US House select subcommittee revealed that around 400 million Covid-19 vaccine doses were likely tossed due to cross contamination problems at its Baltimore plant.
Should the US need to roll out vaccines, the real question will be who gets them first, Baylor said. British authorities recently prompted healthcare workers and others who were exposed to get vaccinated, according to a Reuters report.
“The supply is not enough to roll out to everybody,” he said. “That would really need some discussion, and we’re not at that point yet.”
Aadia Rana, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, told Endpoints that it’s unclear whether those who have been vaccinated against smallpox in the past will need to be revaccinated. However, William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University, pointed out that smallpox vaccines can provide long-term protection. Like any vaccine, though, protection diminishes over time.
“I am really quite confident that the public health authorities in the US and Canada and in Europe will rather quickly bring these various chains of transmission to a close and it’s an exotic event,” Schaffner said. “It’s another indication that we live together on a very small globe, and that strange infections can appear very distantly, and all of a sudden show up in your neighborhood.”