This week's headlines almost sound like the plot of a thriller movie. A Chinese city that's home to 11 million people is locked down, with no one allowed to enter or leave after a deadly virus infects hundreds and kills at least 26 people. Worries intensify after the virus spreads across the Pacific to the United States. Government authorities brace for the possibility of a pandemic that could sweep across the world.

Unfortunately, none of those things were taken from a movie plot. They're reality instead of fiction. The coronavirus that has affected China and now the U.S. is stirring up concerns about what could be next. And many investors are looking to the drugmakers that could potentially step in to help alleviate those concerns. Here are five biotech stocks to especially watch in the wake of the coronavirus scare.

Gloved hand holding a vial of blood with a label showing "coronavirus"

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Biocryst Pharmaceuticals

Biocryst Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:BCRX) surged briefly last week with fears rising about the coronavirus outbreak. The company's development focuses on antiviral drugs.

The company's only commercial product, Rapivab, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014 to treat influenza infection. However, the influenza virus, commonly known as the flu virus, doesn't belong to the family of coronaviruses. Biocryst is, though, evaluating a drug, galidesivir, that could potentially target the coronavirus that's infected hundreds of people. Galidesivir is currently in a phase 1 clinical study. 

2. Gilead Sciences

One of the biggest biotechs in the world, Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD), is well-known for its drugs that treat the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Gilead continues to make billions of dollars each year from its HCV and HIV franchises.

The big biotech is now thinking about evaluating its antiviral drug remdesivir, which targets Ebola virus and Marburg virus, as a potential coronavirus treatment. Reuters reported last week that Gilead is in discussions with researchers in China and the U.S. about the potential for remdesivir to be used in treating the coronavirus.

3. Inovio

Inovio (NASDAQ:INO) has focused on infectious diseases for years but doesn't have an approved drug on the market yet. The company's most advanced program is VGX-3100, a DNA vaccine that targets cervical dysplasia caused by human papillomavirus. Inovio expects to report results from a late-stage study of VGX-3100 in late 2020.

The coronavirus threat has bolstered interest in Inovio's antiviral programs. Inovio's share price jumped last week after the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations gave the biotech a grant of up to $9 million to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus strain that's causing concerns.

4. Moderna

Another biotech stock that has gained a lot of attention as worries escalated about the coronavirus is Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA). Like Inovio, Moderna recently received a grant from CEPI to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

Moderna already has five experimental vaccines in testing that use messenger RNA (mRNA) to prevent or control viral infections, including mRNA vaccines targeting respiratory syncytial virus and Zika virus. The biotech thinks that its mRNA approach could "stimulate a more potent immune response" and potentially set the stage for "rapid discovery to respond to emerging pandemic threats."

5. Novavax

Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) emerged as one of the biggest movers among biotech stocks in the wake of the coronavirus scare. The biotech's shares soared over 30% last week with Novavax announcing that it's working on a coronavirus vaccine.

While Novavax shifts some resources to focus on the coronavirus, the biotech's lead candidate is its nanoparticle-based flu vaccine NanoFlu. Novavax expects to report results from a late-stage clinical study of the vaccine later in the first quarter of 2020.

Separating the panic from the potential

While any or all of these biotech stocks could rise if the coronavirus threat increases, it's important to separate the panic from the potential. There's a lot of work to be done before any of these companies could have a drug or vaccine available to target the worrisome coronavirus strain. And success isn't guaranteed.

Remember also that there have been other viral scares in the past that caused the shares of some biotechs to spike, for example, Ebola, MERS, and Zika. But the gains were only temporary. As deadly as each of those viruses were, the initial concerns about a pandemic were overblown.

The better approach for investors is to focus more on these biotech's primary pipeline candidates (and, for Biocryst and Gilead, their currently approved drugs). Those products are more likely to fuel long-term success for the stocks. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.