Moderna scientists and executives laid out their plans to combat new strains of the virus that causes Covid-19 at a virtual investor event on Thursday, saying that new waves of the epidemic are on their way.
“As the virus spreads, it is rapidly mutating,” the company’s chief scientific officer, Melissa Moore, said on the call. “Some of these new viral strains appear to be even more transmissible than the original strain… We already know that some of these new strains are less susceptible to neutralization by our current vaccine.”
The company said that it tests new variants in the lab against its vaccines, and is “constantly” making and testing new versions of its vaccine. But it warned that the process is not instantaneous, and that the company’s agility is limited by the complexity of the work.
“The shortest time from the detection of a variant of concern to preclinical immunogenicity readout against a panel of pseudoviruses is approximately 2 to 3 months,” said Guillaume Stewat-Jones, a Moderna (ticker: MRNA) scientist who works as associate director of antigen design and selection on their infectious disease team. “And new viral variants are coming — emerging constantly in real time.”
The company offered an overview of a range of its scientific programs in the presentation, including discussions on the engineering of its messenger RNA and the performance of the lipid nanoparticles that enclose the messenger RNA particles.
Analyst questions at the end of the call, however, focused almost entirely on its Covid-19 vaccines. That is another sign of the importance the vaccine to the current valuation of Moderna (ticker: MRNA) shares, as SVB Leerink analyst Mani Foroohar wrote in a note out Thursday.
“For the foreseeable future, this remains almost exclusively a COVID stock, despite not being exclusively a COVID company,” Foroohar wrote.
In a separate note, Jefferies analyst Michael Yee wrote that the presentation demonstrated Moderna’s leadership in messenger RNA-based therapeutics.
“[Management] is investing in engineering to ensure they have ‘differentiated’ mRNA constructs… and this will be a key ‘moat’ to just anyone being able to ‘do mRNA,’” Yee wrote.
Moderna shares climbed 2.3% on Thursday, and were down 0.4% on Friday.
Barron’s argued in a feature in late April that Moderna shares had room to climb, and that Wall Street’s worries over its market value, which at that time was $67 billion and is now $70.5 billion, were overblown.
Foroohar and Yee are more cautious. Foroohar has an Underperform rating on Moderna, at a target price of $83, while Yee has a Hold rating and a target price of $170. Moderna closed at $179.54 on Thursday, and is up 71.9% so far this year, and more than 220% over the past 12 months.
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