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Merck Just Jumped Into The Coronavirus Vaccine & Treatment Fray

Plus, stocks are higher on optimism related to increased economic activity, Autozone reported better-than-expected earnings, and Micron shares are up after an upgrade from Needham.

Stocks were higher to start Tuesday, with the Dow gaining 621 points, or 2.5%. The S&P 500 added 1.95%, pushing the index back above 3,000 for the first time since March 5, and the Nasdaq traded 1.4% higher.

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Stocks surged higher on optimism about the reopening of the economy, as economic activity continues to tick up as lockdowns are eased. Consumer confidence unexpectedly improved in May. According to The Confidence Board, the consumer confidence index rose to 86.6 this month, above the 85.7 recorded in April and far above the 82.3 expected by economists. “Following two months of rapid decline, the free-fall in Confidence stopped in May,” said Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Short-term expectations moderately increased as the gradual re-opening of the economy helped improve consumers’ spirits.” Still, even with plenty of optimism in the air, Oxford Economics found in a survey that more than 60% of businesses across the globe have turned pessimistic about growth prospects over the next two years, and one in four businesses are forecasting a global slowdown will stretch into 2021. Of those surveyed, nearly all businesses expect to take a negative hit from the pandemic, while those expecting a severe hit has halved since last month. “This might suggest that fears over the worst outcomes for the global economy have abated over the past month, as some countries have taken tentative steps to ease restrictions and governments and central banks have continued to signal their willingness to support their economies,” said economists Tim Hunter and Jamie Thompson at Oxford Economics.

Also pushing stocks higher are hopes for a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus. Novavax shares are up more than 15% this morning after the biotech said it has started the Phase 1 clinical trail of its novel coronavirus vaccine candidate, and said it expects to release preliminary results in July. Merck, meanwhile, unveiled today that it is working on two experimental vaccines and one experimental treatment for COVID-19. “Our scientists have been engaged and focused on COVID-19 from the time we learned about it,” said Merck CEO Ken Frazier, adding that the company has been working on a vaccine that could be delivered in a single dose. “We’ve got to immunize seven billion people on the planet,” Frazier said. “If you have a dose that gives you a high amount of neutralizing antibodies with a single dose, that’s a much better, more simple to deploy vaccine, than one that requires multiple doses.” Merck’s first vaccine candidate is being developed alongside nonprofit scientific research group IAVI, the second is being developed by Austrian biotech Themis Bioscience which Merck has agreed to acquire at an undisclosed amount, and the treatment is being developed in collaboration with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and is expected to be an oral antiviral.

In other coronavirus news, the World Health Organization warned that countries where infections are declining could still face an “immediate second peak” if they ease up too soon on restrictions put in place to halt the outbreak. “When we speak about a second wave classically, what we often mean is there will be a first wave of the disease by itself, and then it recurs months later,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of WHO emergencies, “and that may be a reality for many countries in a number of months’ time. But we need also to be cognizant of the fact that the disease can jump up at any time. We cannot make assumptions that just because the disease is on the way down now it is going to keep going down and we get a number of months to get ready for a second wave. We may get a second peak in this wave.” In the U.S., as coronavirus deaths near 100,000, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said that hospitalizations are beginning to tick up as states begin to reopen. “We now see a trend in an uptick in hospitalizations,” Gottlieb said. “It’s a small uptick, but it is an uptick and it’s unmistakable and it is probably a result of reopening. We are going to have to watch it.”

Autozone shares are up this morning after the auto parts retailer reported fiscal third quarter earnings. Autozone said it earned $14.39 a share on revenue of $2.78 billion, while analysts had expected earnings of $13.19 per share on revenue of $2.65 billion. “During the third quarter, we experienced the most extreme fluctuations in sales, both negative and positive, in the Company’s more than 40 year history,” Autozone’s management said in its press release. While its domestic same-store sales fell 1% in the quarter, auto parts proved to be an essential that few consumers could afford to postpone spending on, with many drivers opting to patch up their old car amid the coronavirus uncertainty over committing to a new car loan.

And Micron shares are up 2% this morning following an upgrade from Needham & Co to Buy with 40% upside ahead for the memory chip maker. “We view [Micron] as a key beneficiary of the ongoing recovery in data center and increased DRAM and NAND content in 5G handsets,” said Needham’s Rajvindra Gill in a note. Micron said Friday that it expects that 5G wireless networks will drive an upgrade cycle among smartphone users, reviving growth for the products that has sagged in the last four years. With 5G handsets already accounting for 40% of sales in China’s 5G networks, Micron said it expects global sales of 5G handsets to climb to 450 million in 2021, with positive unit growth through 2024. Needham’s Gill believes Micron can deliver $4.86 per share in earnings for the fiscal year ending in August 2021, and said shares should rise to $63.

Stocks We’re Watching

Retractable Technologies (OTC: RVP): Retractable shares are up nearly 6% over the last week after the medical products maker reported operating income of $481,000 in its first quarter, compared to an operating loss of $175,000 in the same quarter last year. The company reported that domestic sales accounted for 74.4%, representing 77.4% of revenues in the quarter, a jump of 35.8% on increased volumes. Retractable also reported that gross profit rose 41.8% in the quarter due to higher unit sales volumes.

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