Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO), a drug company that has existed for four decades without developing an approved product, has made $208 million thanks to a coronavirus vaccine that hasn’t been tested on humans.
According to the company’s latest financials released Thursday night, Inovio sold more than 43 million shares between Jan. 1 and March 11. Issuing that many new shares is usually bad for a company’s valuation, as it dilutes existing investors. But Inovio did it through an at-the-market agreement, or ATM, which is a pre-existing deal that lets the company mete out new stock to investment banks that then sell it on the open market.
Companies tend to be wary of hitting ATMs too hard, mindful of the dilution issue, but Inovio’s stock price has more than tripled since the start of the year thanks to the coronavirus outbreak and a flurry of press releases touting its work on a vaccine.
Now that the $208 million has changed hands, there’s no money left in Inovio’s ATM, the company said. In the meantime, Inovio is sticking by its promise to start a clinical trial of its coronavirus vaccine in April, and CEO Joseph Kim has told investors — and President Trump — that his company will be able to manufacture 1 million doses by the end of the year.
Those ambitious promises come with caveats and caution. The testing of the Inovio vaccine, called INO-4800, will be conducted only in healthy volunteers who have not been exposed to the coronavirus. The 1 million doses, if made, will be used for further clinical trials, not to protect the public against coronavirus infection, Inovio said.
Inovio’s approach relies on injecting synthetic DNA that codes for protective antibodies. The method doesn’t require administering a live virus and thus could be safer and faster to develop than traditional vaccines, the company has said.
But Inovio is one of about a dozen companies working on developing a coronavirus vaccine, and others appear to be receiving more government support. Moderna is using its mRNA technology to develop a coronavirus vaccine, partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine work is supported by the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
Prior efforts by Inovio to develop a DNA-based vaccine against novel viral contagions, including MERS, Zika, and Ebola, have proved unsuccessful. Inovio has tended to issue a lot of press releases touting the potency and promise of its viral vaccine candidates, followed by some form of financing. But over time, progress stalls out and the vaccine programs go dormant. Inovio often blames outside factors for the lack of success, not its own DNA vaccine technology.
Inovio’s work in other areas has also failed to meet promised goals. The company’s most advanced product is a DNA-based immunotherapy to treat HPV-related cervical dysplasia. Twin Phase 3 clinical trials have been chronically delayed. In January, Inovio admitted that timelines for the program needed to be pushed out by 12 to 18 months because patients aren’t willing to enroll. Last July, the company laid off nearly one-third of its employees after shuttering a different cancer program.
With a market valuation now approaching $1.7 billion, investors are putting a lot of faith in Inovio’s ability to crack the coronavirus puzzle and develop a successful, protective vaccine. The company’s four-decade track record of drug-development futility and an accumulated deficit of $740 million suggest the task may be too much for it to handle.