The question keeping the world up at night: when will a COVID-19 vaccine be ready? Since China released the virus’ genetic sequence on January 10, researchers in several countries have been working around the clock to develop an effective and safe vaccine. Even though the rapid pace of the development process has been impressive to say the least, patience is required as the task at hand certainly won’t be an easy one.

However, in recent days, a few healthcare companies have made strides in the advancement of a COVID-19 vaccine, inspiring hope that we are well on our way to stamping out this deadly virus. Seasoned Wall Street observers know that the race’s winner is bound for glory, with the market standing to reward its efforts handsomely.

Bearing this in mind, we used TipRanks’ database to take a closer look at three healthcare stocks emerging as strong contenders in the world’s most talked about race. Based on the data, each of these Buy-rated names could see significant upside should the outcome be in their favor.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO)

Yet again, Wall Street focus has locked in on Inovio Pharmaceuticals. The company, which has developed DNA technology called SynCon and its CELLECTRA electroporation delivery system to stimulate immune responses to target virus-infected or tumor cells, has made significant headway in its COVID-19 vaccine development program. As a result, one analyst believes additional gains are in store on top of its already achieved 145% year-to-date rise.

Writing for Cantor, five-star analyst Charles Duncan notes that on April 6, not only was the first healthy volunteer dosed with INO’s experimental vaccine, INO-4800, but the FDA also accepted the candidate’s Investigational New Drug (IND) application. During the study, the company will dose 40 healthy volunteers, with preliminary safety and immunogenicity data expected by late summer.

“We note the speed with which this program has moved from ‘idea to action,’ as Inovio was able to go from obtaining the genetic sequence on 1/10 to designing INO-4800, conducting preclinical studies to support an IND, and manufacturing clinical grade product to initiate the study in less than three months. As we previously opined, we believe that Inovio’s platform is well-suited for a rapid turnaround of a vaccine candidate, as the company has substantial experience developing vaccines targeting numerous viruses, including MERS-CoV, Ebola, Zika, and Lassa fever, and DNA-based vaccines are faster to develop and manufacture than protein/viral biologics,” Duncan commented.

Looking specifically at INO’s MERS vaccine candidate, INO-4700, it was able to generate statistically significant T cell responses in 71% of participants after two vaccinations and in 76% of participants after three vaccinations, implying that cellular immunity was produced. In Duncan’s opinion, this demonstrates that the company’s platform can stimulate an immune response, as well as “…the potential for INO-4800 to rapidly make a positive impact on the COVID-19 pandemic, or even potentially future outbreaks, with an effective vaccine.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Duncan left both an Overweight rating and $12 price target on the stock. Should this target be met, a twelve-month gain of 48% could be in the cards. (To watch Duncan’s track record, click here)

Turning now to the rest of the Street, INO’s Moderate Buy consensus rating breaks down into 3 Buys and 2 Holds given in the last three months. At $10.25, the average price target is less aggressive than Duncan’s and suggests 26% upside potential. (See Inovio stock analysis on TipRanks)

VBI Vaccines (VBIV)

VBI Vaccines has already developed a hepatitis B vaccine, Sci-B-Vac, which is on the market in Israel and has completed a Phase 3 development program in the U.S., Europe and Canada. Now, VBIV is taking on COVID-19, and some members of the Street like its chances.

After the company revealed it had partnered with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) to advance a pan-coronavirus vaccine targeting not only COVID-19, but also MERS and SARS, Canaccord Genuity’s John Newman sees VBIV’s long-term growth narrative as being even stronger.

Newman notes that preclinical development is moving right on track, and a clinical trial could even start by year end 2020. As per the terms of the agreement, VBIV will utilize the NRC’s clinical expertise and COVID-19 spike antigens as well as its own enveloped Virus-Like Particle (eVLP) platform, coronavirus antigens and viral vaccine expertise to identify a lead candidate to focus on.

Part of the five-star analyst’s enthusiasm is related to the technology itself, with its eVLP platform enabling the production of antigens with proper trimeric conformation, which has been a key component in the design of other viral vaccines. On top of this, the 3D conformation of viral antigens could be important in the development of an effective vaccine.

Expounding on VBIV’s strategy, Newman stated, “We believe VBI’s approach toward a pan-coronavirus vaccine candidate is rationally designed to stimulate the production of broadly reactive coronavirus antibodies, which could protect against future coronavirus strains. This strategy is important since SARSCoV-2 is an RNA virus prone to mutation with some evidence of antigenic shift being described in the literature.”

As Newman also still believes that Sci-B-Vac will be approved in the U.S. and Europe and sees the data readouts for VBI-1501 and VBI-1901 as potential catalysts, he stayed with the bulls. To this end, he reiterated a Buy rating and $4 price target, implying 317% upside potential. (To watch Newman’s track record, click here)

Looking at the consensus breakdown, it has been relatively quiet when it comes to other analyst activity. Only one other analyst has thrown an opinion into the mix, but it was also bullish, making the consensus rating a Moderate Buy. Based on the $4.50 average price target, the potential twelve-month gain lands at 369%. (See VBI Vaccines stock analysis on TipRanks)

Altimmune Inc. (ALT)

As for the last name on our list, Altimmune’s approach focuses on mucosal immunity, with its COVID-19 vaccine candidate designed using its innovative intranasal platform technology. Following an Expert Call with the company’s management, Roth Capital analyst Yasmeen Rahimi believes it has a fighting chance in this race.

Unlike its peers, ALT’s vaccine technology uses a replication-deficient adenovirus vector, serotype 5, to stimulate a broad immune response. One of the advantages of this design is that it enables vaccines to be delivered intranasally. This sends the vaccine vector directly to the respiratory tract’s mucosal membrane, where it produces mucosal immunity as the first line of defense against COVID-19. As a result, the Ad-COVID vector spurs antigen production inside the cell, which causes an immune response including cellular, humoral and antibody-mediated immunity.

Rahimi added, “Specifically, these immune responses include production of high levels of neutralizing antibodies in the serum, in addition to effective T cell activation to help them recognize and kill cells that are infected with the virus. In comparison, traditional vaccines are injectables and do not usually induce mucosal immunity, making intranasal delivery a favorable attribute for ALT’s vaccines.”

Adding to the good news, only one dose of a vaccine using this platform is needed to produce a robust response. “Importantly, this can eliminate the need for repeat administrations, and can provide lasting protection which in our view is a key advantage especially in a widespread pandemic where there is a need to immunize as much of the population as possible in a short time frame,” Rahimi explained.

Taking all of this into consideration, Rahimi tells investors that her bullish thesis remains very much intact. In line with this take, the four-star analyst maintained a Buy recommendation and $13 price target. This brings the upside potential to a whopping 310%. (To watch Rahimi’s track record, click here)

Over the last three months, Rahimi was the only analyst that published a review on this stock, making the consensus rating a Moderate Buy. (See Altimmune price targets and analyst ratings on TipRanks)

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