(Jan 29): Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague is set in a French Algerian town called Oran that has been ravaged by a mysterious virus. A journalist who visits the town is quarantined. No one in the town is allowed to leave.  The homesick journalist pays 10,000 Francs to smugglers to help him escape.

The smugglers enjoy roaring success in the chaos.  Today’s equivalent of Camus’s smugglers are a legitimate business. The shares of a small American biotech companies with plans for a vaccine for the virus have skyrocketed.

Moderna, Novavax, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals were up between 15% and 79% in the last fortnight.  The enthusiasm for these shares is baffling. None of them have produced a vaccine for the virus. They have only stated an intention to research a possible vaccine.

They have not received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for its products. Even if they were to produce a vaccine, it would take years before it was commercially available.

In Asia, the rubber glove producers have risen in the wake of the virus. Top Glove, the world’s largest glove marker, has rallied 15% as the outbreak spread. Other rubber glove producers that have risen include Hartalega and Mefat Fais. There is more substance to this rally, as the rubber producers prospered during SARS.

If the Wuhan virus is contained, the battered meat stocks may be an opportunity. This sector is viewed as the source of the crisis. The Wuhan virus is said to have originated from an urban “wet market” – markets where animals are freshly slaughtered rather than chilled.

In contrast, consumer stocks are suffering in the carnage. The outbreak has hit Chinese meat stocks hard, with players such as Muyuan Foodstuff, Wens Foodstuffs, Cofco Meat and WH Group all down over 10% in the last fortnight. Even Asean-based meat stocks such Japfa and Charoen Pokphand Indonesia have fallen by 7%.

There is panic selling as investors fear a consumer slowdown. Also, there could be restrictions on meat sales, particularly in "wet markets".

Previous outbreaks such as Sars (November 2002 to July 2003), swine flu (March 2009 to August 2010), Ebola (December 2013 to June 2016) and the Zika virus (March 2015 to November 2016) saw a sharp recovery following the worst of the crisis.

The MSCI China index fell 9 % during the SARS. It bounced back by 30% in the three months after April 2003. Swine flu led to a 4% drop in MSCI Mexico Index, but it then rallied by 25% in three months after the peak of the crisis.

The chances of a containment of the virus in the next month are high. The ratio of fatalities to infections is less than 3%, whereas SARS killed a tenth of the close to 8,000 people that were infected. Public health standards now seem to be better.

It would be foolish to chase the biotech firms as saviours. Their gains can evaporate, once the virus fears recede, as it did in Camus’ novel. The smugglers faced a reversal once the town’s gates were opened. Like smugglers, biotech firms have fickle fortunes. The battered meat stocks may be more enticing.