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Investors Flock To Ebola-Related Companies

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The first Ebola death in America this week has rattled a lot of nerves. Now, the stock market is reflecting some of that fear. While the market overall has been turbulent, one stock has been consistently soaring. It's an obscure company called Lakeland Industries from Ronkonkoma, New York. Shares are up 188 percent since the beginning of October. That's because Lakeland Industries manufactures safety work wear, including hazmat suits. Wallace Witkowski is a journalist at MarketWatch. And he's been keeping a close eye on Lakeland Industries.

WALLACE WITKOWSKI: On Thursday, the stock hit its record trading volume of 48 million shares in a day. Just to give you an idea, they usually trade at about 166,000 shares on a daily basis. And they were up about 50 percent just on Thursday alone.

RATH: Lakeland's shares were trading at about $4.75 earlier this year. Now, they're worth nearly $20.

WITKOWSKI: Investors are almost in that kind of mode where there's a big storm coming that's reported and everybody runs out to the supermarkets and takes all the bread and the milk. In a way, this is the same sort of situation where you have people who don't usually invest in things like hazmat suits and biotech going out and saying well, you know, I want to get in on the ground floor of this. And so that introduces a lot of volatility. And to a large part, it's governed by news reports.

RATH: This isn't the first time a health scare has caused a surge for Lakeland Industries. Witkowski says the company hit an all-time high in 2004 when bird flu was breaking out in Asia.

WITKOWSKI: When there's not a crisis going, you know, they tend to underperform. And then investors lose interest. And their profits sag and so on and so forth. And then here we are again 10 years later with Ebola fears. And we're back to what their levels were back then.

RATH: And hazmat suit manufacturers aren't the only companies feeling the effects of Ebola. Biopharmaceutical company Chimerix has been on the move as well. Chimerix manufactures the experimental drug given to Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S.

WITKOWSKI: The stock was gaining for like five straight days, beginning October 1 and got a big spike when they gained from the FDA something called an experimental exemption to use the drug on Thomas Eric Duncan.

RATH: Then on Wednesday, Duncan died. And Chimerix stock took a nosedive.

WITKOWSKI: If you're watching the charts of the news breaking, the stock went from being up 6 percent on the day to dropping 11 percent in a matter of minutes. It's people reacting or investors reacting to news developments.

RATH: I had to ask Witkowski if would-be investors should feel weird about this. Is there something morally unsound about being - as it were - disease profiteers?

WITKOWSKI: That's a good question. Are you investing in it to profit off of people's misery? Or are you investing in a product that will alleviate it? So I mean, I guess it depends on what your motivation is for the investment.

RATH: That's Wallace Witkowski, journalist at MarketWatch in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.