The story of the tortoise and the hare ranks as one of the most beloved of Aesop's fables. In this fable, the hare gets out to a commanding head start in a race. But the slow-and-steady tortoise ultimately wins.

We're seeing a different kind of race play out right now. Multiple drugmakers are scrambling to develop COVID-19 vaccine candidates. In terms of clinical progress, Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) appears to be neck-and-neck for the lead with a partnership between AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. The U.S. biotech hopes to begin a pivotal late-stage study of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate mRNA-1273 later this month.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) lags behind somewhat, but is nonetheless a contender. The company recently announced preliminary results from a phase 1 study of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate INO-4800. Inovio anticipates advancing the vaccine to phase 2/3 clinical testing this summer.

You might compare Moderna to the hare in Aesop's fable, and Inovio to the tortoise. But will the tortoise win in this modern-day race, or is the hare more likely to emerge the victor?

Gloved hands holding vials labeled Coronavirus Vaccine

Image source: Getty Images.

Different approaches

All viral vaccines work alike in one key respect: They expose the immune system to an antigen (a small quantity of a protein from the virus). The immune system learns to fight this antigen. When the body is later exposed to an active version of the virus, it's able to prevent infection. Moderna and Inovio took different approaches to deliver antigens from SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is the key to Moderna's method. While DNA holds the instructions for building proteins, mRNA delivers those instructions to ribosomes, the body's protein-making factories. Moderna engineers mRNA sequences to prompt ribosomes to build a protein from SARS-CoV-2.

Inovio focuses on DNA instead of mRNA. The company's COVID-19 vaccine delivers small strands of DNA called plasmids directly into cells, using a quick electrical pulse that opens small pores in the cells allowing the plasmids to enter (a process called electroporation). These plasmids hold instructions on building a protein from SARS-CoV-2.

No human vaccine approved so far uses either the mRNA or DNA approach. However, both vaccines could offer significant advantages compared to traditional vaccines. In particular, manufacturing mRNA and DNA vaccines should be quicker and easier than making traditional vaccines.

Bets on each biotech

In some types of races, you can get a pretty good feel for who's likely to win by seeing how much money is being bet on each contestant. Could we determine whether Moderna or Inovio is favored by evaluating the external funding for their respective COVID-19 vaccine candidates? Maybe.

Moderna announced in January that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) awarded it funds to develop its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. However, the biotech didn't state the amount of the award. In April, Moderna received a commitment of up to $483 million in funding from BARDA (the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) to accelerate the development of mRNA-1273.

In its first-quarter update in May, Moderna stated that it had "up to $0.7 billion in potentially available grants and awards." This total included the BARDA grant.

Stacks of $100 bills

Image source: Getty Images.

What about Inovio? CEPI awarded a $9 million grant to the biotech in January for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. In March, Inovio received $5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate the testing and manufacturing ramp-up of its Cellectra intradermal delivery device for INO-4800. CEPI later boosted its funding of Inovio's COVID-19 vaccine candidate to $17.2 million.

As of now, Moderna holds an advantage over Inovio in terms of funding commitments. It's also already on Operation Warp Speed's short list of seven COVID-19 vaccine candidates that the federal government views as the most promising candidates. Inovio's INO-4800 was selected for inclusion in a preclinical trial funded by Operation Warp Speed, but it's uncertain whether the vaccine candidate will be in the federal program's top seven.

And the winner will be...?

Which of these biotech stocks will be the bigger winner in the COVID-19 vaccine race? It's too soon to know.

Moderna definitely claims a head start over Inovio in terms of clinical progress. It also has a funding advantage. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the biotech's COVID-19 vaccine candidate will be safer or more effective than Inovio's candidate.

It's entirely possible that the hare will beat the tortoise this time around. But picking a winner right now in the COVID-19 vaccine race is more folly than fable.



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