It's no secret that the stock market has taken a beating this year. And between the fears that coronavirus cases will surge yet again in the fall and the hype surrounding various potential vaccines and treatments, it's no wonder that many investors have been on the wildest financial ride of their lives since February. While many stocks plummeted to all-time lows in the March bear market crash, Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO -2.99%) surprised investors as one of the stalwart few that managed to avoid a sharp dip. 

Not that its shares had very far to drop. The company's pre-2020 financial performance had been tepid at best. On Jan. 2, the first trading day of this year, shares of Inovio closed at just $3.21 each. Fast-forward to today, when the potential of the company's COVID-19 vaccine candidate is driving the share price, and they're up by about 368% year to date. 

That's great for recent investors, but what types of returns has the stock brought long-term shareholders? If you'd invested $1,000 in Inovio's initial public offering, how much money would you have now? 

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$1,000 would be worth ...

Inovio has a complex history that includes several name changes. When the company IPOed on the American Stock Exchange on Dec. 11, 1998, it was called Genetronics. Genetronics didn't transition to its current company name until it purchased Norway-based Inovio AS in 2005. 

To avoid getting lost in the weeds, let's imagine you purchased shares of the company in December 1998 when it began trading on the U.S. stock market. At a price of $59.01, an initial investment of about $1,000 ($1,003.17 plus trading fees, to be specific) would have bought you about 17 shares. As of mid-morning on Friday, Inovio was trading at about $15.50 a share, which would make your stake in it worth $263. In other words, you'd be down by about 74%.

Is Inovio a good coronavirus play?

Inovio's position in the race to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine hasn't earned it quite the level of attention that competitors like Moderna (MRNA -0.15%) have garnered, but its candidate has definitely attracted investor cash since the beginning of the year. The company first announced that it would be developing a DNA vaccine candidate for COVID-19 called INO-4800 on Jan. 23, after being given a $9 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

On March 12, Inovio announced that it had received an additional grant totaling $5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its Cellectra device, a specialized device for administering DNA vaccines such as INO-4800 that allows them to be delivered directly into patients' cells. The company also entered into a $71 million contract with the U.S Department of Defense in June for the production and acquisition of a large number of Cellectra devices. Inovio initiated a phase 1 human trial of INO-4800 on April 6 and reported  on May 20 that the vaccine had created a strong T-cell reaction and produced neutralizing antibodies during a preclinical study.

Over the past month and a half, encouraging data has emerged about the efficacy of INO-4800. On June 30, Inovio released interim phase 1 trial data showing that among the 40 study participants, 94% had a positive immune reaction to the vaccine after being given two doses over a six-week period. Non-human primates administered INO-4800 in another study also demonstrated strong T-cell and B-cell responses. 

In second-quarter results Aug. 10, Inovio reported encouraging follow-up data from the phase 1 human trial: All of the subjects experienced an immune reaction to the vaccine, and roughly 90% showed robust T-cell responses. Adverse responses to INO-4800 among trial participants were minimal. Inovio plans to commence a phase 2/3 human trial in the U.S. next month.

These results look extremely promising, but as with all of the potential COVID-19 vaccines, the true test for INO-4800 will be how it performs in phase 3 -- a large-scale trial that will measure how well it actually prevents coronavirus infections. Inovio has never brought a vaccine to market, and the company has a lot riding on this one. In 2019, its revenue fell sharply to $4.1 million, compared with $30.5 million in 2018. In this past quarter, Inovio's revenue was up 96% on a year-over-year basis, but its net losses came to a wince-worthy $128.7 million.

If Inovio's coronavirus vaccine turns out to be a blockbuster success, shareholders would certainly see the value of their stakes soar. It's possible that the company's balance sheet could look very different a year from now. Right now, though, the stock looks like a risky coronavirus play at best.