Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO 0.36%) is an anomaly. Most stocks have been hit hard during the coronavirus-caused market sell-off. Shares of Inovio, on the other hand, have more than doubled so far in 2020 and at one point were up over 320% year to date.

The biotech captured investors' attention with its efforts to develop a vaccine to protect against the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. But not every stock that benefits from publicity is worthy of your money. Should you buy Inovio stock during the coronavirus market crash?

Flask with a dollar symbol in it

Image source: Getty Images.

What to like about Inovio

Even though Inovio is small, it's still very much in the thick of the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The company already had an experimental vaccine in phase 2 clinical testing targeting MERS, another member of the coronavirus family. It used the expertise gained in this development program to quickly launch its COVID-19 vaccine program.

In early January, COVID-19 wasn't even on Inovio's radar. Within a matter of weeks, the company not only had an experimental vaccine targeting the novel coronavirus disease ready to go but had also secured a $9 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to conduct preclinical and phase 1 clinical testing. Inovio plans to advance its INO-4800 COVID-19 vaccine to clinical testing in humans this month.

The big story for Inovio prior to the coronavirus crisis was its lead candidate VGX-3100. And it's still a big story for the company. Inovio announced positive interim results in late March from a couple of phase 2 studies evaluating the immunotherapy in treating anal dysplasia and vulvar dysplasia, both of which are precancerous conditions caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) types 16 and 18. It expects to report results from one of two late-stage studies evaluating VGX-3100 in treating cervical dysplasia later this year.  

Inovio's partner AstraZeneca is evaluating MEDI0457, a combination of VGX-3100 and a DNA-based immune activator, in a phase 2 study targeting head and neck cancer caused by HPV. Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI) and the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) are collaborating with Inovio to test INO-5051 in a phase 2 study for treating prostate cancer.

The biotech's pipeline includes two other immunotherapies in phase 2 development. INO-3107 targets recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a rare disease caused by HPV that causes tumor growth in the respiratory tract. INO-5401 is being studied in combination with Regeneron's immunotherapy Libtayo to treat brain cancer.

Inovio is also working on other vaccines in addition to its COVID-19 effort. The most advanced programs are its DNA vaccines targeting HIV and MERS. Inovio's other experimental vaccines target Ebola, Lassa fever, and Zika.

What to dislike

There are several significant issues associated with investing in Inovio Pharmaceuticals. Probably the biggest issue is the high risk level for the biotech. Most of Inovio's pipeline candidates are in early or mid-stage clinical studies. The probability that these programs go on to win FDA approval is low.

VGX-3100 has a better shot at approval since it's already in late-stage testing. Still, though, more than one-third of late-stage infectious disease drugs fail to win FDA approval, based on historical data compiled by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Inovio isn't anywhere close to being profitable. It recorded a loss of more than $119 million last year. Aside from collaboration revenue, the primary source of cash for the company is issuing new shares, which leads to the dilution in the value of its existing shares.

There's also the fact that Inovio has been in business for around four decades and still has no approved product on the market. That's not a track record that instills confidence in the company's prospects of success with its current pipeline candidates.

To buy or not to buy?

I think that Inovio just might have a winner with VGX-3100. The clinical results so far are encouraging. And I sincerely hope that the company is successful with its COVID-19 vaccine.

But do I think the biotech stock is a great pick to buy right now? No. The risks that the company faces are simply too great for most investors to buy Inovio. My view is that there are other stocks, including other biotech stocks, that provide more attractive risk-reward propositions than Inovio does.