Novavax CEO Stanley Erck retires after overseeing COVID shot launch

Novavax CEO Stanley Erck is heading for retirement after 12 years at the helm, including the past three years in which he oversaw the company's transformation into a COVID-19 vaccine maker.

The executive will be replaced by John Jacobs, who is joining the company from Harmony Biosciences, where he was CEO. Erck will continue to serve as an adviser for the next 15 months, Novavax said in a Monday statement.

Erck’s tenure will be marked by the tumultuous years of the pandemic, during which Novavax struggled to get its protein-based COVID-19 shot past regulators behind market leaders Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

Novavax managed to get OKs in the EU, the U.K., Australia and South Korea before finally securing a much-coveted emergency use nod in the U.S. in July 2022. The company had to switch its tactics to promote the shot as an alternative for those hesitant to receive an mRNA shot. But vaccine uptake has been slow, causing Novavax to adjust its revenue projection for 2022. 

Erck rose to the CEO position in April 2011. Part of the challenge behind getting the COVID-19 shot approved was building out a global manufacturing operation to ensure a global supply, Novavax noted. The company also advanced programs in influenza and COVID-19-influenza combination vaccine candidates.

“My experience at Novavax, especially leading the company in the global pandemic response, has been the highlight of my 40-year career as a biotechnology leader,” Erck said in a statement.

Jacobs will take over with 25 years’ experience in commercial, operations, business and leadership, Novavax said. Prior to Harmony, the executive served at Teva Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Wyeth and Pfizer.

“I am grateful to Stan for the foundation that he has built and am honored to join Novavax in advancing its important global and public health mission,” Jacobs said. “I look forward to working with the team and helping to build on the accomplishments and business foundation that have been established over the past several years.”

His departure from Harmony was announced Friday after market, surprising analysts who questioned the timing as the industry meets in San Francisco for the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. But, with the news from Novavax out this morning, it seems his new company wanted to greet the attendees with a splashy new CEO announcement. Harmony said the departure is effective Jan. 20.

Harmony Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Jeffrey Dayno, M.D., will take over on an interim basis while the company searches for a replacement.

Mizuho analyst Graig Suvannavejh, Ph.D., said Jacobs' departure “comes to us suddenly and as a complete surprise” in an early Monday morning note.

“We've known Mr. Jacobs as CEO of Harmony since 2019 (when the company was still privately held), and had come to view him quite positively as an effective and capable CEO,” Suvannavejh wrote. “Furthermore, we believe Mr. Jacobs is liked and respected by investors.”

Dayno, on the other hand, is an experienced executive, but the Mizuho analyst suggested he is better suited in an R&D/clinical development-based role. The firm suspects that his role as interim CEO will be that of a “caretaker,” and he will eventually resume his duties once the new chief executive is sworn in.

“Given our overall favorable impression of Mr. Jacobs and his capability as HRMY's CEO, we wouldn't be surprised to see the stock come under pressure at market open,” Mizuho said.

Harmony’s shares declined around 10% to $48.46 as the markets opened Monday morning, compared to a prior close of $53.92. Novavax, meanwhile, saw a nice 8% bump to $11.92 after closing Friday at $11.02.