Shares in biotechs surge as two new human bird flu infections emerge

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Shares in vaccine makers including Moderna and BioNTech rose sharply on Wednesday after Australia reported its first human H5N1 bird flu case and the US detected its third, increasing fears of wider transmission.

Health authorities in the Australian state of Victoria on Wednesday reported a bird flu case in a child infected during a trip to India who has since made a full recovery. Michigan state health authorities also confirmed they had detected a case of bird flu in a dairy worker exposed to an infected cattle herd.

Bird flu has been spreading widely in US cattle herds, having been detected in nine states during the current outbreak. The two new human cases bring the total of human bird flu infections detected so far this year to eight worldwide but they add to worries among health officials on alert over another virus spilling over into human populations, just a year after the official end of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Further signs of bird flu transmission proved a boon for vaccine-focused biotechs involved in the Covid-19 jab rollout whose share prices have fallen from pandemic highs as investors have soured on them because of waning demand. Investors are betting the companies will once again be at the forefront of battling the next pandemic, if it materialises.

Clare Looker, Victoria’s chief health officer, said the case there involved an H5N1 strain unrelated to the outbreaks in the US. A separate H7 bird flu strain was also detected at an egg farm near Melbourne, early laboratory tests indicated. Australia had previously been the only continent whose animals had been unaffected by the bird flu outbreak.

Looker said contact tracing efforts had not uncovered any further cases and stressed that the risk of further transmission was low as there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday the Michigan case did not change the agency’s assessment that the human health risk was low but it “underscores the importance” of people with regular exposure to infected animals taking necessary precautions. The CDC has upped surveillance testing among farm workers.

Shares in Germany-based CureVac, which announced an early-stage H5N1 vaccine trial in collaboration with GSK last month, rose 18.8 per cent to $3.91.

Moderna’s stock rose 13.7 per cent to $163.33, after gaining about 50 per cent in the past month. Moderna said on Wednesday that it was in discussions with the US government over advancing its pandemic flu candidate through clinical trials after completing a mid-stage trial using its mRNA vaccine technology to target the H5 family of flu viruses, of which the H5N1 strain is a part.

Germany-based BioNTech closed up 11 per cent at $102.30. Novavax, which has been conducting pre-clinical tests on vaccines targeting three different H5N1 strains, rose 5.3 per cent to $15.70.

In a prepared statement, Novavax told the Financial Times that its vaccine platform “could be an attractive asset from a pandemic preparedness perspective because the currently available avian influenza vaccines produce limited immune response”.

The pandemic provided a huge windfall to vaccine makers such as Moderna and BioNTech, whose first approved product was their Covid vaccine, but investors have since soured on the group as the pandemic has receded and demand for shots has waned.

US health authorities have a vaccine stockpile of several hundred thousand doses which were effective against bird flu, according to officials. US officials have also previously said that existing partnerships with three vaccine makers — GSK, CSL Seqirus and Sanofi — would allow production to be increased to millions of doses if a pandemic were to occur.


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