Shares of Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) skyrocketed in January with initial worries about the coronavirus outbreak in China. However, the stock gave up most of those gains over the next few weeks.

Now, though, concerns that the coronavirus could become a global pandemic are greater than ever. Inovio is one of a handful of drugmakers that are frantically scrambling to develop a vaccine for the deadly virus. Should you buy Inovio right now before the coronavirus threat potentially worsens? 

Gloved hand holding vial of blood with a label that has "coronavirus" printed on it with a check next to a box with a plus sign

Image source: Getty Images.

Understanding the landscape

Before answering whether you'd buy Inovio stock, it's first important to understand what's going on with coronavirus drug and vaccine development. Inovio announced on Jan. 23 that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was giving it up to $9 million to advance Inovio's experimental vaccine INO-4800 through preclinical testing and phase 1 clinical studies in the U.S.

A week later, Inovio reported that it's partnering with Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology to develop INO-4800 in China. The two companies, along with the Wistar Institute and GeneOne Life Science subsidiary VGXI, plan to conduct a phase 1 clinical study evaluating the experimental vaccine in parallel with Inovio's testing of INO-4800 in the United States.

Although these updates were encouraging, the reality is that other drugmakers are farther along than Inovio is in developing potential coronavirus treatments and vaccines. Put Gilead Sciences at the top of that list. Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, stated publicly this week that Gilead's remdesivir appears to be the one drug that WHO scientists think could be effective at treating the coronavirus.

Moderna is another leader in the race to fight the coronavirus. The biotech announced on Monday that its experimental vaccine mRNA-1273 is ready to begin testing in humans. Moderna has already shipped an initial batch of its vaccine to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Inovio's other prospects

Inovio isn't only focused on the coronavirus, though. The biotech's lead pipeline candidate is VGX-3100. Inovio expects to report early data from its Reveal 1 phase 3 study evaluating the drug in treating cervical dysplasia in the fourth quarter of this year. 

The company also plans to report 12- and 18-month overall survival data this year for INO-5401 in treating glioblastoma. Inovio previously announced encouraging progression-free survival results after six months of treatment from its phase 2 study of INO-5401 and INO-9112 in combination with cancer immunotherapy Libtayo. The company's big partner, AstraZeneca, should also announce for MEDI-0457, which Inovio initially developed, in treating head and neck cancer this year.

Inovio recently received a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin evaluating INO-3107 in a phase 1/2 clinical trial for treating recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). Like cervical dysplasia, RRP is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

The biotech should also have milestones on the way for its other experimental vaccines. Inovio expects to present data later this year from its phase 1 study evaluating INO-4500 in preventing infection from the Lassa virus. It plans to report results in 2020 from its phase 1 study of INO-A002 in preventing or treating Zika virus infection. In addition, Inovio intends to advance experimental MERS vaccine INO-4700 to a phase 2 study in the Middle East and Africa.

To buy or not to buy?

Investing in biotech stocks can be a risky proposition. Investing in clinical-stage biotech stocks is even riskier.

Inovio certainly has plenty of pipeline candidates that could be successful down the road. However, there's no guarantee that any of them will pan out.

Also, Inovio's cash position stood at $93.8 million at the end of September 2019. That's not even enough to fund operations for a full year at the company's current rate of spending. It seems very likely that Inovio will have to raise additional capital, which could mean a dilution-causing stock offering.

The company isn't in the lead position in the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Its top candidate is still more than years away from possibly winning regulatory approval. I think that investors are better off holding off on buying Inovio stock right now.