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Is a vaccine for the coronavirus coming? Inovio says it has designed one in San Diego

An official in protective gear stand guard outside the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong.
An official wearing protective gear stands guard outside an entrance to the Hong Mei House residential building at Cheung Hong Estate in the Tsing Yi district in Hong Kong.
(Getty Images)

Inovio Pharmaceuticals said that it has produced a pre-clinical vaccine to fight the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus at its lab in San Diego.

The company, based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., used its proprietary DNA-based technology platform to design the synthetic vaccine within hours of getting the genetic sequencing of the virus.

Inovio did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. But in an interview with Yahoo Finance on Friday, Chief Executive Dr. J. Joseph Kim said that the company aims to test its vaccine in the U.S. and China as early as this summer.

“Inovio was able to move very rapidly based on our DNA medicine platform where we can design and construct our vaccine just based on the DNA sequence of the virus,” said Kim. “What we have been able to do is bring in the funding to execute the trials quickly. And we are working with different manufacturers to scale up as we need.”

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Even so, it could take years for Inovio’s synthetic vaccine to clear the testing required by regulators before it can join the fight against the novel coronavirus.

As of Friday, there were more than 63,000 cases of COVID-19 since the virus was first identified in December in Wuhan, China. So far, 1,383 people have died from the disease, according to the World Health Organization.

The U.S. says Americans aboard a quarantined ship will be flown back home on a chartered flight Sunday, but that they will face another two-week quarantine.

Vaccines often undergo extensive clinical trials before they’re deemed safe enough for use. Because there is limited data on the effectiveness of synthetic vaccines like Inovio’s compared with conventionally produced vaccines, it sometimes requires even more research before regulators will sign off on such drugs.

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Founded in the early 1980s, Inovio develops DNA-based treatments for cancer and infectious diseases. Its proprietary platform triggers potent immune responses in the body to fight certain viruses and cancers.

Last month, Inovio announced that it received a $9-million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

“We view the grant as validation of Inovio’s ongoing CEPI collaboration and an indication that CEPI believes that Inovio has one of the best modern solutions for such outbreaks,” said Jonathan Aschoff, an analyst with Roth Capital Partners.

CEPI is a public/private partnership funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Its mission is to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics.

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The organization previously pledged up to $56 million to fund Inovio’s vaccine development for Lassa fever and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which also comes from a coronavirus strain.

“Our intention is to leverage our work with Inovio on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus and rapid response platform to speed up vaccine development,” for COVID-19, said Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI.

Inovio isn’t alone in working on a COVID-19 vaccine. Gilead Sciences of Foster City, which makes anti-HIV drugs, announced that it will conduct trials related to its existing treatments. Chicago-based AbbVie is combining two of its anti-HIV drugs in human trials in China in hopes of stopping COVID-19.

In both cases, the companies are testing existing drugs currently on the market, albeit to treat different diseases.

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“I think repurposing already approved drugs is a great path, but as history has shown, a true way to contain an outbreak like this requires an effective and safe vaccine, and wide use of that,” Kim told Yahoo Finance.

There are a host of smaller biotech companies like Inovio that are also trying to develop a vaccine, though the extent of their efforts remains unclear.

Inovio has worked on vaccines for health emergencies before, including programs for Ebola and the Zika outbreaks about five years ago.

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While the company is still pursuing both vaccines, they remain in clinical trials and have not yet come to market.

Meanwhile, vaccines for Ebola have been made available from other companies in certain countries in Africa. As of April 2019, no Zika vaccine had been approved.

For the COVID-19 coronavirus, Inovio said it is establishing a coalition of partners and a financial backer to push ahead with pre-clinical development and Phase 1 human clinical testing in the U.S. this summer.

At the same time, it is working with Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology Co. to run a Phase 1 trial in China in parallel with the U.S. tests.

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“Following the Zika viral infection outbreak, Inovio and our partners developed a vaccine that went from bench to human testing in just seven months, the fastest vaccine development on record in recent decades,” said Kim in a statement. “We believe we can further improve upon this accelerated timeline to meet the current challenge.”


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