Investors who owned Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO 4.87%) and held the stock through the year have been well rewarded for taking a position in the high-risk, high-reward biotech.

A $1,000 investment in Inovio at the beginning of January is currently worth $5,133, over a 400% increase in less than 10 months.

It could have been more

As the pandemic started, Inovio moved fairly quickly to design a vaccine, INO-4800, that could potentially protect people against the novel coronavirus. The company received some outside funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Department of Defense.

But the added capital doesn't seem to have been enough to help Inovio keep up with Moderna's (MRNA 1.12%) mRNA-1273 and BioNTech (BNTX 0.72%) and Pfizer's (PFE -1.24%) BNT162b2, both of which are finishing up enrollment in their phase 3 studies.

Inovio, on the other hand, hasn't started phase 2 development of INO-4800. The lack of speed has cost Inovio's shareholders. Moderna is a $27 billion company and BioNTech's market cap is neatly $16 billion, while Inovio clocks in under $3 billion.

Gloved hands giving an injection into a child's shoulder

Image source: Getty Images.

Is another 400% jump in Inovio's future?

Inovio plans to start a phase 2/3 clinical trial for INO-4800 this month. If the biotech can enroll the study as fast as the leaders, it'll have efficacy data about four months after the leaders report. Of course, that's a big IF considering the slow development so far.

Inovio's future as a coronavirus vaccine maker is largely dependent on the fate of mRNA-1273, BNT162b2, AstraZeneca's (AZN 0.57%) AZD1222, and any other vaccines that beat Inivio to market -- Johnson & Johonson (JNJ -0.29%) and Novavax (NVAX 7.87%) have both started phase 3 development.

If they all fail in phase 3, Inovio would have a huge opportunity to swoop in -- assuming, of course, that INO-4800 works. Coming in after multiple approvals could still work for Inovio, but only if the initial vaccines don't offer long-term immunity.

If the coronavirus vaccine needs to be given annually, there's an opportunity for late-comers like Inovio to grab some market share. As a DNA-based vaccine, INO-4800 could have a distinct advantage over mRNA vaccines from Moderna and BioNTech which require cold storage. Inovio's other DNA-based vaccines are stable for more than a year at room temperature and more than 30 days at around 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the downside, Inovio's vaccine requires a device, the Cellectra 3PSP, to deliver the vaccine into the patient's skin. It's another item that needs to be approved by regulators and manufactured without any complications. And on the delivery side, it's a new device that healthcare workers need to be trained to use.

Beyond coronavirus

Even in the worst case scenario where Inovio completely misses its opportunity to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, the biotech still has quite a few other opportunities to take advantage of its DNA vaccine platform.

The most advanced program, VGX-3100, is in phase 3 development for precancerous cervical dysplasia, which is caused by the human papillomavirus. Results from the late-stage clinical trial are expected in the fourth quarter of this year.

The drugmaker also has other cancer vaccines, as well vaccines for multiple infectious diseases in phase 2 development.