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HK-listed biotechnology technology shares set to reap windfall from hunt for ‘Zika’ cure

As Zika virus cases continue to pop up around the world amid reports that the mosquito-borne pathogen could affect close to two billion people, biotechnology firms are set to have a dream run on the bourses, a new report said.

Efforts to combat the virus, which can cause women to potentially give birth to babies with microcephaly — an incurable condition leading to underdevelopment of the brain — will boost vaccine makers working on a Zika vaccine, Guosen Securities said in a research report published last week.

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“There is a pressing need to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus,” Guosen Securities analyst Jason Siu said. “The current interest in the search for Zika vaccines or drugs could spark investor interest in biotechnology companies that are working on new drug discovery and vaccine development.”

The Guosen report singles out gains for Hong Kong-listed biotech companies if the Zika virus — which now has over 290 cases in Singapore — spreads to China. Beneficiaries would include companies like Sinopharm, China’s biggest healthcare group; Shandong Weigao, China’s leading medical consumable maker; and SSY Group, a large Chinese pharmaceutical supplier. Companies working on vaccine research and development like Livzon Pharmaceutical, Sino Biopharmaceutical, and HEC Pharm could also gain over the long term, Siu said.

The report said that a majority of the blockbuster drugs in the world are biological medicines, such as target-specific monoclonal antibodies (MAB), which help treat cancers and could be the key in the production of a Zika vaccine. As a result, companies such as Livzon Pharm are good buys, in part due to their research and development in MAB, vaccines, and liquid biopsy, Siu said.

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In 2003, during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, “drug stocks” such as medicine maker Nanjing Medical, Lizvon Pharm, and Shenzhen Accord Pharmaceutical saw large gains. In the US, the bio-pharmaceutical Viragen stock price gained six times in one day in May after the company announced that it had filed for a SARS drug patent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 67 countries have already seen Zika transmissions since 2015, and anticipates that Zika “will continue to spread,” according to Eloi Yao, regional public information officer for WHO.

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Zika, which is carried by certain mosquito species, broke out in Latin America and the Caribbean last year, and has now appeared in countries in Asia such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. Hong Kong was also on high alert after its first imported case of Zika infection last month, while Malaysia reported its first case of a pregnant woman with Zika last week.

This spread is also positive for global vaccine makers, with Japan’s Takeda Pharma getting US$19.8 million (HK$153.6 million) from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over the next 18 months for its US-based subsidiary to develop a Zika vaccine for use in the United States.

“If the application is approved, the first clinical (human) trials of the vaccine could begin next year,” an HHS press release read.

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The vaccine will likely be formulated with inactive Zika viruses and a substance to enhance the body’s immune system, and Takeda could be sponsored by the US until 2022 with a total of US$311 million, according to Siu. The Japanese drugmaker could also develop its own vaccine for use outside of the US, he said.

Following the HHS’ announcement on September 1, Takeda Pharma stock went up more than 3.3 per cent. Other companies expected to work on a Zika vaccine include London-based GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Pasteur, the largest company in the world focused entirely on vaccines.

“All eyes [are] on global biotech,” Siu said.