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This Company Boasted to Trump About Its Covid-19 Vaccine. Experts Are Skeptical.

As the deadly new virus spread globally, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, a small biotech company in Pennsylvania, rushed to develop a vaccine. After announcing promising early results, Inovio’s stock soared more than 1,000 percent. Riding the momentum, the company sold more shares to the public.

That was 2009, when H1N1, better known as swine flu, was stoking fears of a devastating pandemic. In the years since, Inovio has announced encouraging news about its work on vaccines for malaria, the Zika virus and even a “cancer vaccine.” The upbeat declarations have caused the company’s stock price to leap, enriching investors and senior executives.

There’s only one catch: Inovio has never actually brought a vaccine to market.

Now, with a new pandemic raging, Inovio is working on a new vaccine: for the novel coronavirus. A flurry of positive news releases about its funding and preliminary results have sent Inovio’s shares up by as much as 963 percent — and helped the company attract money from the government and investors. At the same time, Inovio insiders have sold stock.

But some scientists and financial analysts question the viability of Inovio’s technology. While there are some early signs of promise with the company’s vaccine, Inovio has only released bare-bones data from the first phase of clinical trials. It is locked in a legal battle with a key manufacturing partner that claims Inovio stole its technology.

Shareholders have sued Inovio, claiming it has exaggerated its progress on a coronavirus vaccine to inflate its stock price. Adding to the challenges, Inovio’s potential vaccine will have to be administered by a gadget — it resembles an electric nose-hair trimmer and is called the Cellectra — that would direct genetic material into millions of patients.

And while the company has said that it is part of Operation Warp Speed — the flagship federal effort to quickly produce treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus — Inovio is not on the list of companies selected to receive financial support to mass-produce vaccines.

“The absence of that funding, coupled with their ongoing litigation, coupled with the need to scale a device, coupled with the absence of complete Phase 1 data, makes people skeptical,” said Stephen Willey, an analyst at Stifel, an investment firm.

As it tries to defuse the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration is wagering, in part, on companies — like Moderna and Novavax — with spotty track records and penchants for self-promotion. In June, Inovio received $71 million from the Department of Defense to manufacture its battery-operated Cellectras.

Some medical experts worry that taxpayer backing for unproven companies could erode the public’s already tenuous faith in vaccines.

Credit…John Francis Peters for The New York Times

“If you dry up trust, you’ll have almost a self-defeating proposition with vaccine uptake,” said Arthur L. Caplan, a bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine. “The more you’re hype and less you’re reality, the more you are taking funds away from things that are cheaper, closer or both,” he added.

Inovio could provide an update on its progress with the vaccine when it releases its second-quarter financial results on Monday.

Developing vaccines is hard. In addition to coming up with an effective formula and the funding to produce it, drug makers need to navigate an obstacle course of government safety checks and rigorous scientific review on a fast enough timeline to stay competitive. The fact that a company like Inovio has never brought a vaccine to market is not necessarily an indictment of its underlying approach to creating vaccines. Otherwise, scientists say, the world would never have technological breakthroughs.

Inovio’s specialty is attempting to develop DNA-based vaccines, which use a virus’s own genes to provoke an immune response. But the company’s decade of attempts have not borne fruit.

In fact, no DNA-based vaccine has ever made it to market. While some have produced encouraging results in small animals, they have not proven effective in humans — against the coronavirus or any other disease.

Nonetheless, the scientific community continues to believe the technology is promising in part because such gene-based vaccines can be designed quickly. Companies in Korea, India and Japan are pursuing similar DNA-based coronavirus vaccines.

Inovio’s chief executive, J. Joseph Kim, has said that when the DNA sequence of the coronavirus became public in January, the company was able to immediately engineer a vaccine. Later that month, Inovio secured a $9 million grant from the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a leading funder of vaccine research.

In March, Dr. Kim — an immunologist who became chief executive of Inovio in 2009 — was invited to participate in a meeting in the White House’s Cabinet Room with President Trump and pharmaceutical executives.


Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the public meeting, Dr. Kim described Inovio as “the leader in coronavirus vaccine development in the world,” adding that it had its own manufacturing capabilities.

Mr. Kim said that, thanks to “our very innovative, 21st-century platform,” Inovio had been “able to fully construct our vaccine within three hours.” All the company needed now, he told Mr. Trump, was the federal government’s support to help scale up manufacturing.

Inovio’s stock shot up 220 percent over the coming days. Its market value has gone from less than $500 million at the start of the year to more than $3 billion today.

Shortly after the White House meeting, Inovio announced that it had received a $5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The money would help Inovio test the Cellectra. The devices use electrical pulses to direct DNA into patients’ cells — a technique that experts said is grounded in legitimate science.



Some investors, though, had grown skeptical.

On March 9, Andrew Left of Citron Capital, which is shorting Inovio’s stock and stands to profit if it declines, began publicly questioning Inovio’s approach to devising a coronavirus vaccine and accusing it of engaging in “serial stock promotion.” He later issued a report comparing the company to Theranos, the disgraced blood-testing company, and cataloging Inovio’s history of promoting and then failing to produce vaccines.

Inovio’s stock price plunged 66 percent, though it would soon soar to new heights thanks to optimism about its potential vaccine.

Days later, shareholders sued Inovio in federal court in Pennsylvania. Citing Dr. Kim’s remarks at the White House and earlier comments he made on Fox Business Network about having created a vaccine, the suit claimed that the company had “capitalized on widespread Covid-19 fears by falsely claiming that Inovio had developed a vaccine.” In April, another group of shareholders filed a separate suit in the same court, accusing Dr. Kim and Inovio’s board of mismanagement and unjustly enriching themselves, among other things.

Inovio has disputed Mr. Left’s critiques, but the company publicly clarified that it had developed a vaccine construct — essentially a road map — not an actual vaccine. Inovio has not publicly responded to the pending shareholder lawsuits.

Over the past 10 years, insiders at Inovio have sold more than $25 million in stock, according to the financial data provider Equilar. Last year, Dr. Kim was forced to sell about half his Inovio shares — causing the stock price to drop by more than a third — after he used his shares as collateral to borrow money and was caught in a so-called margin call, requiring him to immediately repay his loan.

This year, following steep run-ups in Inovio’s stock price, insiders have sold $3.8 million in shares. (Earlier this year, Inovio banned executives from “engaging in short-term or speculative transactions in the company’s securities, including pledging and purchasing company securities on margin.”)

Hoping to raise money to fund its vaccine efforts, Inovio said this year that it planned to sell some $150 million in new stock to investors.

In April, Inovio began trials of its potential vaccine, testing it on 36 people. (A volunteer in the trial said that getting zapped with the Cellectra didn’t hurt. “It just feels strange,” she said.)

On the last day of June, Inovio reported encouraging results in the 36-person trial. Inovio said its vaccine was “generally safe and well-tolerated” and generated an immune response.

But the company did not disclose any data about the magnitude of that response. Scientists said that made it impossible to gauge whether the vaccine would protect anyone.

Jeff Richardson, an Inovio spokesman, said the company would release more data soon.

When it announced the study results, Inovio also claimed that its vaccine had been “selected for the U.S. Government’s Operation Warp Speed.” But Inovio was not given federal funding to produce vaccines. Instead, its vaccine candidate had been chosen for inclusion in a preliminary study on rhesus macaque monkeys that had been organized by Warp Speed. (Vaxart, another company participating in the monkey trial, similarly claimed to have been selected for Warp Speed, drawing criticism from the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Asked about Inovio’s claim to be part of Warp Speed, Mr. Richardson said: “It depends on what you call Warp Speed.” He declined further comment.

At the White House, Dr. Kim had talked up Inovio’s manufacturing capabilities. While the company does manufacture its Cellectra, it has relied on another company, VGX International, to manufacture its vaccine candidate.

Now, Inovio and VGX are in a legal fight. In June, Inovio sued, claiming that VGX was refusing to share technology needed to produce the Inovio vaccine with other companies and was endangering public health. The case, along with a countersuit by VGX, is pending in state court in Pennsylvania.

In court filings, VGX accused Inovio of stealing trade secrets and challenged its claim that there is a public interest in Inovio’s work.

“Although the Covid-19 pandemic is horrible, Inovio is unlikely to win the race for the vaccine,” VGX lawyers wrote. Despite Inovio’s years of work, “it has never developed an F.D.A.-approved product.”

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Bill Gates, at Odds With Trump on Virus, Becomes a Right-Wing Target

In a 2015 speech, Bill Gates warned that the greatest risk to humanity was not nuclear war but an infectious virus that could threaten the lives of millions of people.

That speech has resurfaced in recent weeks with 25 million new views on YouTube — but not in the way that Mr. Gates probably intended. Anti-vaccinators, members of the conspiracy group QAnon and right-wing pundits have instead seized on the video as evidence that one of the world’s richest men planned to use a pandemic to wrest control of the global health system.

Mr. Gates, 64, the Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist, has now become the star of an explosion of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus outbreak. In posts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, he is being falsely portrayed as the creator of Covid-19, as a profiteer from a virus vaccine, and as part of a dastardly plot to use the illness to cull or surveil the global population.

The wild claims have gained traction with conservative pundits like Laura Ingraham and anti-vaccinators such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as Mr. Gates has emerged as a vocal counterweight to President Trump on the coronavirus. For weeks, Mr. Gates has appeared on TV, on op-ed pages and in Reddit forums calling for stay-at-home policies, expanded testing and vaccine development. And without naming Mr. Trump, he has criticized the president’s policies, including this week’s move to cut funding to the World Health Organization.

Misinformation about Mr. Gates is now the most widespread of all coronavirus falsehoods tracked by Zignal Labs, a media analysis company. The misinformation includes more than 16,000 posts on Facebook this year about Mr. Gates and the virus that were liked and commented on nearly 900,000 times, according to a New York Times analysis. On YouTube, the 10 most popular videos spreading lies about Mr. Gates posted in March and April were viewed almost five million times.

Mr. Gates, who is worth more than $100 billion, has effectively assumed the role occupied by George Soros, the billionaire financier and Democratic donor who has been a villain for the right. That makes Mr. Gates the latest individual — along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. infectious disease expert — to be ensnared in the flow of right-wing punditry that has denigrated those who appear at odds with Mr. Trump on the virus.

“Bill Gates is easily transformed into a health-related meme and figure because he’s so well known,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who teaches digital ethics. “He’s able to function as kind of an abstract boogeyman.”

Especially since Mr. Gates has sharpened his comments about the White House’s handling of the coronavirus in recent weeks.

“There’s no question the United States missed the opportunity to get ahead of the novel coronavirus,” he wrote in an opinion column in The Washington Post on March 31. “The choices we and our leaders make now will have an enormous impact on how soon case numbers start to go down, how long the economy remains shut down and how many Americans will have to bury a loved one because of Covid-19.”

Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Gates’s main philanthropic vehicle, said it was “distressing that there are people spreading misinformation when we should all be looking for ways to collaborate and save lives.”

Through a representative, Mr. Gates declined to be interviewed.

The conspiracy theories about Mr. Gates may particularly damage what people think about a future coronavirus vaccine, said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, an organization that fights online disinformation. She said the narratives “have the potential to kick off coordinated and sophisticated online campaigns that turn people against taking a virus vaccine.”

YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said they were fighting coronavirus misinformation.

Mr. Gates, who founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975 and built it into a software behemoth, has largely devoted his time to philanthropic endeavors since he stepped back from the company in 2008. As of 2018, the Gates Foundation had a $46.8 billion endowment, making it one of the world’s largest private charitable organizations.

The foundation has worked to distribute vaccines in developing countries, advocated family planning through greater use of contraceptives and funded the development of genetically modified crops. Those efforts have prompted unfounded accusations that Mr. Gates was hurting the world’s poor with unnecessary drugs and harmful crops while trying to suppress the global population.

His disdain for Mr. Trump, whom he has met several times, has also become public. In 2018, footage surfaced of Mr. Gates recounting how Mr. Trump needed help distinguishing H.I.V., which refers to the human immunodeficiency virus and causes AIDS, from HPV, which is the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection.

“Both times he wanted to know if there was a difference between H.I.V. and HPV, so I was able to explain that those are rarely confused with each other,” Mr. Gates said to laughter in comments to his foundation.

In January, when the coronavirus began spreading, the Gates Foundation committed $10 million to helping medical workers in China and Africa. In February, Mr. Gates weighed in on the illness, warning in The New England Journal of Medicine that Covid-19 was behaving like a once-a-century pathogen.

In addition to writing the Washington Post op-ed, he called for more and equitable testing in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session last month. This month, Mr. Gates appeared on “The Daily Show” and said his foundation would fund factories for the seven most promising potential vaccines.

On Wednesday, the Gates Foundation said it would commit $250 million — up from an earlier pledge of $100 million — to slow the disease’s spread.

By then, falsehoods about Mr. Gates had taken off. The first mention of a baseless conspiracy connecting him to the outbreak was on Jan. 21, according to the Times analysis. That was when a YouTube personality linked to QAnon suggested on Twitter that Mr. Gates had foreknowledge of the pandemic. The tweet was based on a coronavirus-related patent from the Pirbright Institute, a British group that received funding from the Gates Foundation.

The patent was not for Covid-19; it was connected to a potential vaccine for a different coronavirus that affects poultry. But two days later, the conspiracy website Infowars inaccurately said the patent was for “the deadly virus.”

The idea spread. From February to April, conspiracy theories involving Mr. Gates and the virus were mentioned 1.2 million times on social media and television broadcasts, according to Zignal Labs. That was 33 percent more often, it said, than the next-largest conspiracy theory: that 5G radio waves cause people to succumb to Covid-19.

Some of the theories tapped into Mr. Gates’s acquaintance with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who was convicted of sex trafficking and committed suicide, saying a global elite had banded together to create the coronavirus.

In other theories, internet trolls twisted comments that Mr. Gates had made. In one, trolls said Mr. Gates, who had raised the idea of “digital certificates” to confirm who had the virus, wanted to surveil the population with microchip vaccination implants.

By April, false Gates conspiracy theories peaked at 18,000 mentions a day, Zignal Labs said.

The theories were amplified by people such as Mr. Kennedy, a son of former Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who campaigns against vaccines as a director of the Children’s Health Defense network. On his Instagram page, Mr. Kennedy has said Mr. Gates pushes vaccines to feed his other business interests.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy posted a cartoon of a smiling Mr. Gates with a syringe and a caption: “Your Body, my choice.”

Mr. Kennedy, whose Instagram followers have doubled to more than 285,000 since March, said in an interview that he was telling the truth about the “terrible damage” that Mr. Gates had inflicted on the world with vaccines.

In an April 7 tweet, Ms. Ingraham, a Fox News host, shared a conspiracy theory about nefarious motives behind Mr. Gates’s call to track and identify who had received a Covid-19 vaccine. “Digitally tracking Americans’ every move has been a dream of the globalists for years,” she wrote.

Ms. Ingraham did not respond to a request for comment.

And Roger J. Stone Jr., the Trump confidant who was sentenced this year to 40 months in prison for felonies related to the 2016 Trump campaign, said in a radio interview this week reported by The New York Post that whether Mr. Gates “played some role in the creation and spread of this virus is open for vigorous debate.”

On Wednesday, after Mr. Gates said pulling funding to the World Health Organization was ill advised, the online reaction was swift. (The Gates Foundation funds the organization.)

One anti-vaccinator posted a poster of the movie “Kill Bill” on Instagram that read “Kill Bill Gates” and called for people to flood the comments on Mr. Gates’s Instagram account.

That same day, when Mr. Gates posted his thanks to health care workers, it received over 14,000 comments. One read: “This virus is a big, big lie.”

Michael H. Keller contributed reporting. Ben Decker contributed research.

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Bill Gates Stepping Down From Microsoft’s Board

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Gates is stepping down from the board of Microsoft, the software giant he helped found more than four decades ago.Mr. Gates said on Friday that he would also step down from the board of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate run by his close friend, Warren E. Buffett.“ …

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