David B. Weiner is known in scientific circles as "the father of DNA vaccines." The tag pays homage to his pioneering work over 30 years, but it's also a reminder that his baby is still aborning.
Not a single human DNA vaccine has made it to market anywhere in the world, and the technology is still rapidly evolving.
The pandemic may be the moment of truth. Genetic code vaccines -- built with DNA or RNA -- are strong front-runners in the global race to develop an immunization against the coronavirus that has claimed nearly half a million lives worldwide since it emerged in China seven months ago.
Inovio -- the Plymouth Meeting biotech that Weiner cofounded, advises, and has financial interests in -- was recently dissed as "under-the-radar" in industry press. But in March, the company's DNA vaccine for the coronavirus was featured on TV's "60 Minutes." And last week, the company snagged a $71 million government contract to manufacture the skin-zapping device that is part of its vaccine platform.
Within days, Inovio says, it will announce results of the first small human trial of its coronavirus vaccine, "INO-4800." Initial testing focuses on safety, but that shouldn't be a problem, based on Inovio's other experimental DNA vaccines.
The big question is whether the shots generated signs of a potent immune response. Feeble responses -- too wimpy to protect against infection -- have been the Achilles' heel of DNA vaccines.
Weiner, 63, is acutely aware that getting a vaccine approved is about managing expectations, cultivating good press, and raising money -- as well as solid science. He said that the vaccine race is against the virus, not rival developers. That multiple vaccines using varying strategies are needed. And that perfect is the enemy of the good.
"I think we should set our expectations low," he said. "I really think we're most likely to have several vaccines, and that they will lower disease severity and prevent some infections. It doesn't have to be 100% effective to have enormous value for the world."
It normally takes a decade or two to get a vaccine from concept to clinic, yet the aim is to start immunizing people against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, by next summer. More than 120 vaccine candidates using five different strategies are advancing at a breakneck pace, aided by billions of dollars from governments and philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation.
Among the developers already conducting human testing are four with RNA platforms: Moderna, Pfizer, CureVac, and Imperial College London. Inovio is the only front-runner with a DNA-based vaccine.