Vir Biotechnology Inc.’s stock has lost some of its luster after quadrupling earlier this year as competition heats up for Covid-19 antibody therapies. Yet its chief executive officer is looking ahead to the next viral scourge.
With two well-heeled competitors ahead of it, Vir has pared a February surge to a still impressive 122% leap this year. Eli Lilly & Co.’s antibody treatment received an emergency use authorization on Nov. 9 and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.’s therapy got its nod over the weekend. Vir’s medicine is unique because it targets a variety of coronaviruses, CEO George Scangos said.
It “has the potential not only to be effective against Covid-19, but it has a reasonable chance of also being effective against the next coronavirus outbreak,” Scangos said in an interview. An interim look at late-stage data for VIR-7831 is expected in January.
Regeneron has touted its two-antibody cocktail as being better than single-antibody treatments like those from Lilly or Vir. Yet Scangos, a former Biogen Inc. chieftain, said that while Lilly and Regeneron’s medicines block the ability of the virus to infect cells, the virus could evade these antibodies by mutating.
“Would you rather have two random baseball players or Babe Ruth?,” he said. “It’s not just the number but the quality and the characteristics of the antibody.”
Vir’s antibody was developed not from a Covid-19 patient but from one who’d recovered from severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which is also caused by a coronavirus. The company chose an antibody that also works against Covid-19 and Scangos postulates that it responds to something in the SARS and Covid viruses that hasn’t changed over years of viral evolution.
He also sees potential advantage for Vir’s antibody in its engagement of part of the immune system where Lilly and Regeneron’s molecules have had less potent activity.
Baird’s Madhu Kumar, the only analyst with a sell-equivalent rating on Vir, is skeptical. He said this particular component of Lilly and Regeneron’s antibodies may be what led to some safety signals and “could trigger inflammatory cascades that could be detrimental to patients.” This particularly concerns hospitalized patients, which Vir is still studying, Kumar told Bloomberg.
Email requests for comment to Lilly and Regeneron weren’t returned.
Much of Kumar’s skepticism is tied to Vir’s valuation. Even after the stock pulled way back from a Feb. 27 record, it’s still has more than doubled this year. He’s also wary of the market for antibodies in general because successful vaccine results from Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE as well as Moderna Inc. have blunted its longer term “tail value.”
Outside of Covid-19, Kumar has a positive view on Vir. “There’s a real company behind this,” he said, calling out Vir’s hepatitis B RNAi platform.
Others on Wall Street take a more optimistic view with five analysts deeming it a buy, and one with a hold rating. The average analyst price target of $55 suggests the Street expects shares may almost double over the next 12 months.
GlaxoSmithKline Plc is also a believer and has invested $250 million in San Francisco-based Vir. The duo are in a deal to pursue not only Covid-19 but future coronaviruses using CRISPR screening technology and artificial intelligence to find new compounds.