Inovio's COVID-19 vaccine claims echo Theranos, says short attack

Inovio Pharmaceuticals’ stock has climbed higher and higher over the past month since it said it was working on a speedy COVID-19 vaccine.

The company’s stock started April at around $7 a share but more than doubled to $15 toward the end of the month. The climb started after Inovio said April 6 that it had received FDA clearance to begin clinical development of potential DNA vaccine INO-4800.

This was no doubt helped by the biotech’s vaccine project being funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a nutshell, its tech works by delivering plasmids into cells intramuscularly or intradermally, using a hand-held smart device that uses a brief electrical pulse to open small pores in the cell.

These, the company contends, briefly open to allow the plasmids to enter, overcoming a problem associated with other DNA and mRNA vaccines. Once inside the cell, the plasmid DNA instructs the cell’s own machinery to generate antigens to stimulate an immune response that primes the body against the coronavirus.

RELATED: Inovio axes staffers, cancer program to 'sharpen focus,' save cash

But Citron Research (PDF), known for its attacks, has come out against the biotech, labeling its COVID-19 vaccine claims as Theranos-like, the medtech company that promised to deliver answers and diagnoses to many diseases through a simply blood test, but turned out to be a sham.

The firm's attack claimed that Inovio developed a vaccine in just three hours and “under the same scientific team that has spent decades deceiving investors.”

It went on: “It’s been over 40 years since Inovio was founded, yet the company has NEVER [sic] brought a product to market,  and all the while insiders have enriched themselves with hefty salaries and large stock sales.” Citron said that Inovio shareholders have been “Theranosed” by the company.

What’s really irked the company is the biotech’s "60 Minutes" appearance, when Inovio’s senior vice president of R&D Kate Broderick said: “All we need is that genetic code. So it's just a series of A's, and T's, and C's, and G's that make up the blueprint to the virus. We use a computer algorithm to generate the design of the vaccine. So we plugged in the viral sequence. And after three hours, we had a fully designed vaccine on paper. And then, after that, the stages to manufacture went straight into effect.”

“Simply put, the management team at Inovio is a group of charlatans,” the firm said in its paper.

“So Inovio has a 'computer algorithm' that no one else in the world has and is arguably one of the greatest breakthroughs in vaccine discovery in the past 100 years, and yet this 'computer algorithm' is not mentioned once in any of its 10-K’s or 10-Q’s? Sounds like Theranos to us.”

Earlier this week, Inovio said its phase 1 U.S. clinical test for its COVID-19 DNA vaccine INO-4800 is “fully enrolled with all 40 healthy volunteers receiving their first dose, with interim immune responses and safety results expected in late June.” Yesterday, it also said it had penned a deal with Richter-Helm BioLogics to “expand existing DNA manufacturing agreement to support large-scale manufacturing of INO-4800” for later stage testing this year.

Inovio has had a tough few years: Last summer, it said it was cutting 28% of its workforce and swinging the ax to a cancer program. That came a few months after AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit walked away from some of its R&D work with the biotech.

Shares have come back down since the attack to $12 a share.