UPDATE 1-Tekmira shares skyrocket as Ebola outbreak intensifies in Africa

Fri Aug 1, 2014 2:36pm EDT

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By Sayantani Ghosh and Ashutosh Pandey

Aug 1 (Reuters) - Shares of Canada's Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp , which hopes to produce the first treatment for the deadly Ebola virus, have skyrocketed as the worst-ever outbreak of the virus intensified in West Africa.

Though testing of the company's treatment TKM-Ebola on humans was put on hold last month due to safety concerns, investors scrambled to buy its stock, sending shares up 7.5 percent to $13.77 in Nasdaq trading Friday, and up more than 50 percent over the past fortnight.

"The recent outbreak in West Africa is as profound as any we have seen in recent decades," said Euro Pacific Canada analyst Douglas Loe.

"We have solid pre-clinical evidence showing that TKM-Ebola is effective at eradicating Ebola symptoms, giving us confidence that its development activities could resume," he said.

The outbreak forced Sierra Leone to declare a state of emergency and call in troops to quarantine victims on Thursday. The country joined neighbor Liberia in imposing tough controls as the death toll in West Africa exceeded 700.

Indeed, the outbreak is outpacing efforts to control it, but could be stopped, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan said on Friday.

Ebola belongs to a family of viruses that can cause serious hemorrhagic fevers. There have been dozens of deadly outbreaks of the virus across West Africa, threatening people as well as endangered gorilla populations.

The recent outbreak, which has killed 729 people in four different countries since February, is the worst since the disease was discovered in the mid-1970s.

Tekmira had previously published proof-of-concept data that showed its treatment resulted in 100 percent protection from a lethal dose of Zaire Ebola virus in infected primates.

The company started an early-stage clinical trial for the treatment in January and was granted fast-track status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on March 5, pushing shares to their highest ever a few days later.

The FDA's fast track is a process designed to facilitate and expedite the development and review of drugs to allow important new therapies to get to patients quickly.

The latest surge in Tekmira shares has come in the past 14 days, with shares soaring more than 52 percent over that period on the Nasdaq, including Friday's gains.

Those gains have come even as the treatment was put on clinical hold July 3, sending shares down more than 15 percent that day.

Tekmira officials weren't immediately available for comment.

"What Wall Street does is that it sees an Ebola crisis and it sees Tekmira with an Ebola medical countermeasure that has shown a 100 percent effectiveness in animals," said Maxim Group analyst Jason Kolbert.

"It says: 'Wow! This may be a really valuable product'."

Kolbert said he expected the hold to be lifted by year-end.

Analysts said the FDA would likely face pressure from global health campaigners to consider fast-tracking possible treatments, including Tekmira's.

A North Carolina physician petitioned the regulator on Wednesday on the Change.org website to release the hold on Tekmira's treatment. [chn.ge/1AHixDw ]

The petition has already gathered 12,500 signatures.

"Given that at least one patient has transferred the disease from Liberia to Nigeria by air travel, the possibility of a global pandemic becomes increasingly likely," said the petitioner, who identified himself as Ahmed Tejan-Sie, MD.

Last month, the director of the influential Wellcome Trust global charity said people at high risk of dying from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa should be offered experimental medicines to see if they work.

Tekmirawas incorporated in 2005, the result of a reorganization of its parent, Inex Pharmaceuticals Corp, which crashed when the FDA rejected its highly touted cancer drug.

Burnaby, British Columbia-based Tekmira has since specialized in the field of gene silencing, otherwise known as RNA interference.

All four brokerages covering the company's Nasdaq-listed stock have a "buy" or equivalent rating and an average price target of $26.63, about twice its current price. (Additional reporting by Sneha Banerjee in Bangalore; Editing by Bernadette Baum)