Shares of

Avant Immunotherapeutics

( AVAN) more than doubled early Wednesday after the biotech firm licensed its vaccine technology to a defense contractor working on antibioterrorism measures.

The contractor, closely held Dynport Vaccine, will use Avant's technology to help develop vaccines against undisclosed infectious diseases that might be used by terrorists. In 1997, the Defense Department awarded Dynport a 10-year contract to work on the project as part of a larger antibioterrorism effort.

Investors, spooked since Sept. 11's attacks on New York and Washington by the threat of diseases such as anthrax and smallpox, were rushing to buy Avant, pushing the stock up $3.70, or 125%, to $6.65. By 10 a.m. EDT, volume was more than 20 times the daily average of about 173,000 shares.

Avant is just the latest bioterrorism-related company to attract Wall Street's attention. On Tuesday,

Cepheid

(CPHD)

jumped 86% on news of government interest in its pathogen detection device. On Wednesday, Cepheid shares added 27%, hitting $10.44.

The Early Bird

Despite Avant's rise, it's far too early to tell if the company will actually earn significant profits from the contract -- the terms weren't disclosed. The Needham, Mass.-based biotech firm has a handful of vaccines in development, but none are anywhere near approval by U.S. drug regulators. Before Wednesday's run-up, Avant shares were 74% below their 52-week high, reached in November 2000.

If recent media reports are to be believed, developing and storing vaccines in significant quantities remains a tall order. Bioport, a closely held Michigan company contracted by the government to develop an anthrax vaccine, has been stymied by manufacturing problems.

Nonetheless, Needham & Co. drug analyst Mark Monane says Wednesday's deal validates Avant's vaccine-making ability. "I think Avant has a good technology platform, and the deal with Dynport is certainly topical," he says. Monane rates Avant a buy, and his firm has no banking ties to the company.