MERS an 'emerging market opportunity,' Novavax CFO says

Critics last month questioned whether developing a vaccine for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) made any real sense for governments or vaccinemakers. But fast-forward a few weeks, and with the virus arriving in the U.S. and the death toll rising elsewhere, everyone seems to be paying a little more attention.

Novavax CFO Buck Phillips

And for companies like Maryland-based Novavax ($NVAX), whose experimental jab has blocked MERS infection in laboratory studies and could potentially be used in humans or animals, the emerging threat represents "an emerging market opportunity," CFO Buck Phillips told FierceVaccines.

While it's difficult to peg how far the virus will go--so far, it has killed 171 and infected 571 in 17 countries since April 2012--contracts with local health ministries could ensure direct sales, with ministries then supplying the vaccine to populations based on the outbreak's progression.

So far, Phillips said, interest from those ministries is there--and building.

"I think it's very fair to say that there's broad interest out there from healthcare systems around the world, particularly in the Middle East and even now in the U.S.," Phillips said, noting that Novavax is in early conversations with governmental authorities. "Quite frankly, with every additional case, that interest grows."

Some experts have questioned whom exactly to vaccinate, considering that cases have largely been concentrated in Saudi Arabia, with most of those popping up among healthcare workers in Jeddah. "I can see it works as an appeasement--that they want to say they can make it--and biochemically of course they could, but practically it doesn't make any sense," virologist Ian Jones of Britain's Reading University told Reuters last month.

Novavax VP of Vaccine Development Gale Smith

But for companies like Novavax looking to produce a shot, there's also a potential veterinary application to eliminate the threat at the source, thought to be camels. Such an application would require an adjuvant to keep costs down--something Novavax, for one, already has in use with veterinary vaccines on the market, company VP of Vaccine Development Gale Smith told FierceVaccines.

Of course, whether countries decide to go forward with human or animal MERS vaccination depends on the virus' spread. Wednesday, a World Health Organization committee said in a statement that because so far no evidence exists of sustained human-to-human transmission, the situation doesn't yet meet the criteria to be deemed a public health emergency of international concern.

- read the WHO statement