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Meet the Novastans: How Novavax vaccine’s cultlike following could alter the course of COVID

January 27, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC

In the “hot vax summer” of 2021, the “Pfizer Gang” reigned supreme. Now, in the depths of an Omicron winter, another vaccine fan club is emerging: the Novastans.

U.S. vaccine maker Novavax has inspired thousands of devoted followers on social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter, where they are bonding over the prospect of receiving a more traditional protein-based vaccine that seems to be as effective against COVID-19 as jabs that rely on newer mRNA technology.

“Congrats Aussies! C’mon Canada, let’s get with the program here! We neeeeeeed it!” one user wrote on Reddit after Australia approved the Novavax vaccine earlier this month. “To U.S. citizens in the United States of America: We got to be more aggressive!” another user said, referring to Novavax’s prospects for approval in the U.S. “Enough is enough!”

Another Reddit user said they had refused vaccination while waiting for Novavax’s jab. “We were told we would have Novavax’s by mid [last] year, and we are waiting to still get it,” the user wrote.

The Novavax fans are rabid—and getting antsy.

Novavax first published clinical trial results in January 2021 showing that its vaccine was up to 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections, putting it on par with the efficaciousness of Pfizer and Moderna. But in following months, Novavax struggled with manufacturing and regulatory delays that hampered the firm’s ability to bring the drug to market despite its proven efficacy. In October, Politico reported that Novavax suffered purity problems at manufacturing plants and that Novavax had failed to prove to regulators that it could produce high-quality vaccines. Novavax said the delays were the result of a “highly complex” process, after previously attributing regulatory delays to issues with its manufacturing partners.

But regulatory tides are now turning in Novavax’s favor.

The small, Maryland-based biotech firm has won approval for its protein-based COVID-19 vaccine from the World Health Organization, the European Commission, Australia, India, and several other countries since last November, even as its approval in the U.S. remains weeks or months away. There are also promising signs that Novavax’s vaccine may hold up against Omicron, though it may be too early for conclusive data. In late December, Novavax claimed that initial studies showed its vaccine generated an effective immune response against Omicron, especially among those who receive three doses.

The approvals mark the first time in Novavax’s 35-year history that the firm has brought a drug to market. Founded in 1987 in Gaithersburg, Md., Novavax initially pursued vaccine and women’s health projects that did not pan out before focusing on developing vaccines for the flu and other respiratory illnesses in the mid-2000s. In 2013, Novavax purchased rights to the Matrix-M adjuvant, a tree-based ingredient that helps boost the efficacy of protein-based vaccines, which it has used to develop experimental vaccines for diseases like SARS and Ebola. Novavax uses Matrix-M in its COVID-19 vaccine.

“Novavax’s vaccine offers something different; it is based on well-understood, protein-based technology that has been used for decades in vaccinations like flu, HPV and shingles,” Silvia Taylor, Novavax’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs, tells Fortune.

The firm’s inexperience in bringing vaccines—or any other product—to market hasn’t discouraged Novavax fans from eagerly anticipating the rollout of its jab.

Professor John Skerritt, the head of Australia’s drug regulator, told reporters last week that Novavax had become uniquely popular among Australians.

“I have [received] several hundred emails from individuals and groups who have said, for whatever reason, ‘We would like to have [this] particular vaccine’…[Australia’s approval] just gives them further choice,” Skerritt noted.

Novavax’s vaccine fan club is a diverse group, representing a mix of vaccine skeptics—from the cautious to the conspiratorial—as well as a group of meme-stock retail investors who hope the jab’s approvals will boost the firm’s flagging share price. At least some followers say they will only get vaccinated if it’s with Novavax’s shot, and at this point in the pandemic the Novavax-or-bust community represents an important constituency in countries like the U.S. that have run out of ways to win over vaccine holdouts.

The Novastans

When Novavax released its clinical trial data in January 2021, the positive results launched the little-known firm into an exclusive club of COVID-19 vaccine makers that had crafted a cocktail to neutralize the wily pathogen.

Emmet, a 24-year-old college student in New York, says he had not been paying much attention to vaccine-maker names at the time; he was just happy that the COVID-19 jabs were coming. “I was just like, ‘Thank God, finally a miracle has come,’” he recalls.

Emmet, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of being labeled an anti-vaxxer, says he had been as cautious as possible to avoid catching the virus. He’s skipped most social interactions. If he did go to indoor settings, he was conscious of the ventilation.

“I’ve been completely trapped at home, just doing emergency remote learning” since the beginning of the pandemic, he says. “I rarely step out of the house.”

Dr. Stephaun Wallace, who leads global external relations for the COVID-19 Prevention Network at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, receives his second injection from Dr. Tia Babu during the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine Phase III clinical trial at UW Virology Research Clinic on Feb. 12, 2021, in Seattle.
Karen Ducey—Getty Images

When Novavax released its clinical results, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had already granted emergency authorizations to mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Millions of Americans had received a first dose. Emmet’s doctor advised him to get a jab, but Emmet balked. He had started to hear about the side effects of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from friends and on social media. He was also worried that an mRNA jab might exacerbate his epilepsy, a condition that causes seizures, even though his doctor assured him of its safety.

Later in the summer, Emmet joined Novavax_vaccine_talk, a Reddit forum created last August that now has over 2,000 users. The group celebrates the jab and dissects every piece of company news. He says he was attracted to Novavax because it uses a traditional, protein-based technology similar to hepatitis B and other vaccines he’s received.

“I started to feel very uncomfortable” about the mRNA jabs, he says. And he doesn’t want Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine since U.S. authorities briefly paused its rollout last April owing to rare instances of blood clots in some recipients. (U.S. regulators allowed the administration of J&J jabs to resume within 10 days after deeming the vaccine safe.) Emmet isn’t afraid of Novavax’s vaccine because he feels his body is “kind of already used to” taking similar jabs.

Months after joining the forum, Emmet now says he is unwilling to take any other vaccine and is contemplating flying to Europe to receive the Novavax jab if the U.S. does not approve it soon. “It looks like I probably have no choice but to go,” he says.

Emmet’s Novavax-or-nothing stance is not universally held among the vaccine’s supporters in the Reddit forum. Others say they have received mRNA or other vaccines that were readily available despite their preference for the Novavax shot.

Still, many Novavax fans appear to share Emmet’s concerns about side effects related to the mRNA jabs, even though experts say Novavax’s side effects may not be much different.

“[Side effects] are not always bad. Sometimes they’re actually a sign of having a good immune response,” says Ashley St. John, an immunology professor at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. She expects the side effects of the Novavax vaccine to be similar to what people experience after mRNA jabs. “But certainly we need to wait for the data,” she says.

In trials, Novavax did not report any rare or serious side effects in people injected with the vaccine, but patients commonly reported mild symptoms like headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue, especially after the second jab of the two-dose regime.

Many forum users cite the danger of a rare side effect, myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle, that’s popped up in recipients of the mRNA and Johnson & Johnson jabs. St. John says the risk of myocarditis from Pfizer’s vaccine or Johnson & Johnson’s jab is extremely low. The European Medicines Agency says there is less than a one-in-10,000 chance that patients develop myocarditis after receiving the mRNA jabs. The U.S. CDC says myocarditis cases in patients who got mRNA jabs are mostly mild and temporary.

“If you’re not vaccinated, it is much more likely [that you will develop myocarditis] from getting COVID,” St. John says.

Emmet says he tries to avoid content on the Reddit forum that appears to be blatantly false and acknowledges that there are users who deliberately spread misinformation.

“There are some people in support of Novavax that have been spewing misinformation,” he says. “I just have to be mindful of that.”

A search through the forum reveals several comments and posts promoting widely debunked theories about mRNA jabs, like the idea that the spike proteins induced by mRNA vaccines are somehow toxic to the human body. “There’s no scientific evidence for that…It’s not plausible,” says St. John. Some of the posts promoting the theory have not been taken down, and Reddit tells Fortune that its content policy prohibits “many kinds of harmful content, including health-related disinformation such as falsified medical studies, manipulated videos, and coordinated campaigns.” Reddit says that in addition to moderators who police forums, it has “experienced teams that enforce our policies across the platform and remove 99% of policy-breaking content before anyone sees it.” 

Kieran O’Doherty, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph in Canada who researches vaccine hesitancy, says mRNA vaccines have sparked especially intense vitriol and skepticism, perhaps owing to fear of the new technology and the power of anti-vax narratives.

“Many individuals who have expressed strong opposition to the mRNA vaccines have not been against vaccines previously,” he says. “For them, it is important to express that their opposition is specifically to mRNA vaccines, not to vaccination in principle.”

Still, more traditional anti-vaxxers are fanning the flames of anti-mRNA sentiment, which may be drawing even more people to the Novavax jab, he says. “These different groups are now coming together in their opposition to the mRNA vaccines” and coalescing around Novavax, he notes.

He says the anti-mRNA crowd may be attracted to Novavax because several scientists who have spoken out against COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have recommended the Novavax jab. For example, Dr. Peter McCullough, a cardiologist, regularly appears on outlets like Fox News and Joe Rogan’s Spotify podcast and makes unproven claims about the potential dangers of mRNA vaccines. He’s repeatedly touted the Novavax jab on his own podcast.

Waiting for Novavax is a risky strategy, but those holding out for the jab offer hope to public officials that some unvaccinated individuals can still be convinced.

In Australia, Skerritt, the health official, said the government expects Novavax’s approval to boost the nation’s vaccination rate by 1% or more. Australia has fully vaccinated 93% of its population above the age of 16. Skerritt hopes that the rate soon rises above 95% now that Novavax is approved, which would help Australia “continue [its] journey towards mastering COVID,” Skerritt recently told Australian media.

Novavax may hold even more potential to boost vaccination campaigns in places like the U.S., where 62.7% of the population is fully vaccinated. (Australia has fully vaccinated 78.3% of its population when accounting for people under the age of 16.)

It’s unclear how many unvaccinated people in the U.S. would take Novavax’s jab. Half of unvaccinated individuals in the U.S. say that nothing could persuade them to get jabbed, according to surveys. But Novavax’s own executives believe their jab can make inroads with the vaccine-hesitant.

Novavax CEO Stanley Erck told CNN late last year that he views Novavax’s “primary market” as “people who have been hesitant to get other vaccines” rather than supplying booster shots to the already vaccinated.

“We know additional [COVID vaccine] options are needed given the percentage of people who remain unvaccinated and the increasingly important role boosters and annual revaccination may play in this pandemic,” Novavax’s Taylor tells Fortune.

O’Doherty says it’s difficult to speculate on how Novavax’s approval in the U.S. would alter vaccine uptake. “If [vaccine] mandates become stronger, people would probably go for the Novavax shot,” he says. “But in places where there are no strong vaccine mandates, it is questionable how many people would actually get Novavax if it is approved.”

Globally, Novavax’s vaccine promises to boost vaccine drives in lower- and middle-income countries. The WHO’s approval last month means Novavax, via its manufacturing partner the Serum Institute of India, may make good on its pledge to supply 1.1 billion doses to COVAX, the global vaccine sharing facility. Novavax has already delivered tens of millions of doses to countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, but COVAX’s distribution campaign is now in jeopardy owing to a shortage of funds.

Dr. Nita Patel examines a computer model of the protein structure of a potential COVID-19 vaccine at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Md., on March 20, 2020.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds—AFP/Getty Images

NVAX

There are fans who have flocked to Novavax for health reasons, and then there are supporters who view Novavax’s vaccine as an investment opportunity akin to GameStop, the video game retailer that starred in last spring’s meme-stock trading frenzy. Often, the two clubs overlap.

On Reddit, users on the wallstreetbets forum, which helped propel the rise of meme stocks like GameStop and AMC, have long promoted Novavax, which trades as NVAX on the Nasdaq. In March 2021, a Reddit forum solely dedicated to NVAX stock popped up. It has over 4,200 followers today.

Retail investors bullish on Novavax are betting on its vaccine technology, its positive trial results, and the combined $2 billion investment it received from the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine development initiative and CEPI, a Bill Gates–backed vaccine funding organization.

“I’m liking NVAX. And the shorts should be getting nervous,” one user wrote in December, referencing the short-sellers betting against the stock that NVAX investors hope to squeeze. “HODL folks this is going to be big,” another user recently posted alongside a picture of a vaccine syringe blasting off like a spaceship, leaving wads of cash in its wake.

So far, the stock has taken them on a wild ride.

At the beginning of 2020, Novavax’s stock price hovered around $4. Shares shot up on news that the company was developing a COVID-19 vaccine and peaked at $290 in February 2021 shortly after it released its positive clinical data. But after nearly a year of approval delays, NVAX’s share price has dropped 70% from its high to trade at roughly $90.

Martin Warner, a 27-year-old IT worker in Philadelphia, says Novavax was one of his first-ever stock trades, and he bought nine shares of the stock for roughly $900 in October and November of 2020 after reading about the vaccine.

“I thought, well, this vaccine seems a little bit different and could potentially be lucrative,” Warner says. Warner, who received the Pfizer vaccine and is mostly interested in Novavax to “make money,” says that at its peak, he had made $1,500 in gains. “I was psyched on the Novavax stock performance,” he says. “Then the stock quite literally plummeted.” If he cashed out today, he would lose money. His NVAX holdings are now worth $200 less than when he first invested.

Emmet says he’s been surprised by the diversity and grass-roots nature of the Novavax fan club, from the NVAX stock promoters to the vaccine technology purists.

“I’ve been blown away” by the number of Novavax supporters, Emmet says. “Honestly, I thought [Novavax supporters] were all like Republican or conservative…but there’s Democratic and independent supporters who actually want this vaccine so badly.”

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