Stocks close flat after wild session as investors assess Gilead coronavirus treatment

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There are bargains to be had in this market: Stock picker
There are bargains to be had in this market: Stock picker

Stocks were taken for a wild ride on Thursday that showed just how important finding a treatment for the coronavirus is for Wall Street. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed just 39.44 points higher, or 0.2%, at 23,515.26. Earlier in the day, the Dow rallied more than 400 points. The S&P 500 dipped 0.1% to 2,797.80 while the Nasdaq Composite closed just below breakeven at 8,494.75. Both the Nasdaq and S&P 500 were up more than 1% at their session highs.

The Financial Times said  — citing documents accidentally published by the World Health Organization — that Gilead Sciences' drug remdesivir did not improve patients' condition or reduce the coronavirus pathogen in their bloodstream. Those findings, according to the report, came from a clinical trial in China. 

Gilead took issue with the report, saying: "Because this study was terminated early due to low enrollment, it was underpowered to enable statistically meaningful conclusions. As such, the study results are inconclusive, though trends in the data suggest a potential benefit for remdesivir, particularly among patients treated early in disease."

Equities attempted a rebound on the back of Gilead's statement before closing along the flatline. Gilead Sciences shares closed 4.3% lower. 

The report and Gilead's subsequent statement came a week after STAT News reported that Chicago patients taking remdesivir to treat coronavirus were recovering rapidly from severe virus symptoms. That report lifted market sentiment, sending stocks sharply higher.  

"Any sort of treatment is key for people to getting people back out into the world," said Kim Forrest, founder of Bokeh Capital, on CNBC's "The Exchange." "When the results were announced of the trial last week, you could see the market react and it was a sigh of relief that, if I get this, I may not die."

Oil rebound continues

West Texas Intermediate futures for June delivery jumped 19.7% to settle at $16.50 per barrel as traders increased bets on U.S. production cuts. WTI also rallied on Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, concerns over a lack of energy demand sent WTI's May contract — which expired Tuesday — into a negative price. Crude prices are also down sharply year to date even after their strong gains over the past two days.

"The resulting price action is highly damaging for many oil producers, and certainly implies a sharp fallback in US shale fracking, contributing to much weaker US exports and capex later this year," wrote Charles Dumas, chief economist at TS Lombard.

Oil's rebound has helped equities claw back some of their steep losses from earlier in the week. Between Monday and Tuesday, the S&P 500 and Dow dropped more than 4% before rallying around 2% on Wednesday.

U.S. traders on Thursday also pored through the Labor Department's latest report on jobless claims. 

Another 4.4 million workers filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to data from the Labor Department. That brought the five-week jobless claims total to more than 26 million, erasing all the job gains since the Great Recession. However, Thursday's print represented a decline from the jobless claims number reported in the previous week.

"The decline in initial jobless claims … is encouraging, but the damage has already been done," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at TS Lombard. He added, however, that the "easing of lockdowns may have pulled some people currently on temporary layoff back into paid employment. If so, then April's unemployment rate could prove to be the pandemic peak."

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