Small-cap Emergent BioSolutions (NYSE:EBS) has landed another contract to manufacture a possible COVID-19 vaccine, this time with European pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Of course, the contract, said to be worth as much as $87 million, hinges on whether AstraZeneca's vaccine gets approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human use.   

Emergent is a contract development and manufacturing organization that has relationships with many biotech and pharmaceutical companies (not to mention the federal government). Back in April, it  inked a similar deal with Johnson & Johnson worth up to $135 million. 

multiple bottles of COVID-19 vaccine

Image source: Getty Images

The coronavirus vaccine race is heating up

The COVID-19 pandemic is rewriting the rule book when it comes to how fast a drug can go from preclinical development to regulatory approval. Health officials are now suggesting that a COVID-19 vaccine may be ready for broad public use by 2021. That's an extraordinarily rapid pace considering that the record for bringing a totally new vaccine to market is four years, and the process usually takes considerably longer. Of course, the size of the opportunity is vast (i.e. most of the world), so vaccine companies are lining up manufacturing capacity now, even though most of their candidates haven't made it through phase 1 clinical trials yet.

This has introduced a level of speculation in drug manufacturing stocks that wasn't there before. Typically, biotechs wait until their drugs are near approval before signing any manufacturing contracts. But with COVID-19, all bets are off. Maybe Emergent will be producing a billion vials of COVID-19 vaccine next year, or maybe not. We simply can't know. 

One biotech, Novavax, recently spent $167 million to buy a company in order to get more manufacturing capacity for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Another one, Moderna, signed a 10-year COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing deal with the Swiss multinational Lonza Group.

Shares of Emergent were down by about 1.3% in mid-afternoon trading Thursday, while the broader market as measured by the S&P 500 was down by 4.8%.