In response to the emergence of a new coronavirus seen recently in China, and now America, Novavax Inc. has initiated development of a vaccine candidate, the company told BioWorld. Company shares (NASDAQ:NVAX) climbed more than 71% Jan. 21, ending the day at $9.82.

The Gaithersburg, Md.-based company has extensive history working with coronaviruses and developing vaccine candidates. Of particular note, it said, was its successful production of a vaccine candidate designed to provide protection against Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), as well as preclinical work associated with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Now the company expects to develop a vaccine candidate from the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus, first seen in Wuhan, China, a city with a population of more than 11 million people in eastern China.

To date, the beta coronavirus, labeled 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization, has resulted in more than 40 cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, triggering severe illness in several patients, and the deaths of two older adults, according to the CDC. One case has been identified in the U.S. so far in a man in his 30s who traveled from Wuhan. According to the Washington State Department of Health, the patient is currently being observed at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash.

Chinese authorities have moved to release the genetic sequence of the newly discovered beta coronavirus quickly for the benefit of researchers worldwide, exemplifying "the transparency needed to tackle unfolding public health emergencies," the Oslo, Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations said in a Jan. 17 blog posting. The vital genetic data "will help speed the development of diagnostic tests, case detection and, potentially, a vaccine," the coalition said.

Novavax's work to develop a vaccine candidate will leverage the company’s recombinant nanoparticle vaccine technology as well as its Matrix-M adjuvant to potentially provide additional immune response. The technologies have been validated in the company's lead clinical program, its phase III Nanoflu vaccine, as well as its RSV vaccine, Resvax.

How quickly Novavax will be able to come up with a candidate vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus wasn't immediately clear. In 2013, it developed a pandemic influenza H7N9 vaccine candidate in just 90 days following its receipt of the genetic sequence. A clinical study that followed was published in The New England Journal of Medicine soon after. Also, in 2017 the company published a report on its MERS-CoV nanoparticle vaccine candidate developed just three months after it received the MERS gene that, combined with Matrix-M adjuvant, was "highly protective," it said. With the virus sequenced, other companies with vaccine development capabilities are likely to pursue the development of additional vaccine candidates to address the emerging threat.

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