Emergent BioSolutions, a Gaithersburg-based drug developer, has received a federal task order worth up to $22 million to develop and manufacture a possible vaccine for the Zika virus, the mosquito-borne illness that is spreading rapidly through Central and South America.
The contract, from the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, calls for Emergent to develop and manufacture Zika vaccine candidates for Phase 1 clinical trials with humans. The base value of the 30-month contract is $17.9 million and it can be extended to $21.9 million.
Emergent will further develop a base vaccine candidate from BARDA, then manufacture it. BARDA is within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
Emergent expects to have the vaccine candidate ready for clinical trials by the end of the year.
If the trial goes well, Emergent will move production from its Gaithersburg facility to its larger Baltimore manufacturing plant, to begin producing the vaccine for patients, said Barbara Solow, who leads research and development at Emergent.
Researchers around the world have been scrambling to develop a vaccine for Zika, which has been linked in pregnant women to the birth defect microcephaly, which stunts the brains and skulls of fetuses.
While Zika has spread rapidly in Central and South America, so far only travel-related cases have been reported in the United States. However, the virus is transmitted primarily by a species of mosquito whose range extends into North America, including Maryland. Health officials expect transmission could begin in the United States this summer.
The contract is Emergent's second in two years related to a global virus outbreak. Emergent was selected in 2015 to develop several potential treatments for the Ebola virus.
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At 10 percent of Emergent's business, such government contracts like these represent a small but growing revenue stream, said Barbara Solow, who leads research and development at Emergent. In 2012, the company was named a Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing, a designation that essentially puts Emergent on the federal health department's speed dial for responding to global health emergencies.
Emergent's Baltimore manufacturing plant, located in East Baltimore, is set up to transition quickly from one project to the next, a valuable quality when responding to urgent calls for a new drug.
Solow said the uptick in government work for Emergent also could be a sign of the times.
"We didn't expect there would be two public health crises in this short of a time span," Solow said. "But when you look at the ever-increasing populations, with everyone traveling around and global warming, this could be a thing of the future — more outbreaks on a more regular basis."
Despite the news about the Zika vaccine order Monday, shares of Emergent's stock closed down more than 7 percent at $27.24 each. The sell-off continues a slide that began last Wednesday after the federal government ordered 56.4 million doses of two anthrax vaccines. Zacks Investment Research reported that some traders appeared to have been expecting a larger order.