The world is eagerly awaiting some good news in the fight against the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease that the virus causes. Several drugmakers are scrambling to become the first to provide that good news.

Gilead Sciences (GILD 0.28%) and Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO 3.51%) rank as two of the leaders in battling COVID-19. Which of these coronavirus-focused stocks is the better pick right now? Here's how Gilead and Inovio stack up against each other.  

Scientist wearing a mask and safety glasses while holding a vial of blood with a label in the vial that has coronavirus printed on it

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Gilead Sciences

Gilead recently became the first drugmaker to advance to late-stage testing of a potential antiviral treatment for COVID-19. The big biotech announced on Feb. 26 that it was evaluating remdesivir in two phase 3 clinical studies targeting COVID-19 with plans to enroll close to 1,000 patients.

Just a few days earlier, World Health Organization (WHO) assistant director-general Bruce Aylward stated publicly that remdesivir was the "one drug right now that we think may have efficacy." It shouldn't be too long before we know if that optimism is justified. Gilead's studies monitor patients for 14 days after initial treatment with remdesivir.

But the investing argument for Gilead goes far beyond one experimental COVID-19 drug. Gilead is an absolute juggernaut in HIV with multiple blockbuster drugs on the market. It's the leader in cancer cell therapy. And the biotech has several potential big winners in its pipeline.

The most promising near-term prospect is filgotinib. Gilead expects to win FDA approval for the drug in treating rheumatoid arthritis this year. It's also evaluating filgotinib in treating several other immunology indications, including Crohn's disease, psoriatic arthritis, and ulcerative colitis. Some analysts think the drug could generate close to $4 billion in peak sales if approved.

Gilead has a good shot at becoming a bigger force in the oncology market as well. Although sales of cancer cell therapy Yescarta haven't taken off as quickly as hoped, Gilead thinks that it will pick up additional approved indications for the drug. The company also plans to acquire cancer-focused biotech Forty Seven for $4.9 billion in a deal that will bring promising blood cancer drug magrolimab into its lineup.

As they say on TV infomercials, wait... there's more! Gilead could have a game-changer in its pipeline with long-acting HIV drug GS-6207. The company also pays a dividend with a juicy yield of 3.6%.

The case for Inovio

While Gilead focus on an antiviral treatment for COVID-19, Inovio is working on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus disease. Last week, Inovio announced that it was accelerating the timeline for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine, INO-4800, and expects to begin a phase 1 study in humans in April.

Developing coronavirus vaccines isn't new for Inovio. The company is the only drugmaker with a vaccine for preventing a coronavirus in phase 2 testing, although the targeted disease, in this case, is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) rather than COVID-19. Still, Inovio's expertise in targeting coronaviruses potentially gives the biotech an advantage.

Inovio also has other experimental vaccines in development. Its programs target Ebola, Lassa fever, Zika, and HIV, in addition to COVID-19 and MERS.

The company's lead candidate, though, is VGX-3100. Inovio expects to report preliminary results later this year from a late-stage study of the immunotherapy in treating cervical high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (HSIL) caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The biotech is also conducting phase 2 studies of VGX-3100 for treating vulvar HSIL and anal HSIL.

AstraZeneca is testing MEDI-0457, a combination of VGX-3100 and IL-12, along with immunotherapy Imfinzi in treating head and neck cancer. The big pharmaceutical company should report results from its phase 2 study featuring the drugs in the second half of 2020.

Inovio's pipeline also includes three other drugs in clinical testing. The company plans to announce overall survival data after 12 and 18 months later this year from a phase 2 study evaluating INO-5401 in treating aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). It's evaluating INO-5051 in a phase 2 study for treating prostate cancer. Inovio also plans to initiate a phase 1/2 study in 2020 for INO-3107 in treating recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP).

Better coronavirus stock

It's not all sunshine and roses for Gilead and Inovio. RBC Capital Markets think that remdesivir has only a 50% chance of success in being effective at treating COVID-19. Gilead's hepatitis C franchise sales continue to fall. As for Inovio, short-seller Citron Research recently slammed the company's coronavirus program and thinks its shares will plunge to a fraction of the current price.

So which of these biotech stocks is the better pick right now? I think that Gilead Sciences is the clear winner. The company is profitable, while Inovio isn't. It has a much larger and more diversified pipeline. And even if its prospects of achieving success in treating COVID-19 come down to essentially a flip of the coin, I think Gilead's chances are higher than Inovio's are with its experimental COVID-19 vaccine. 

Gilead Sciences is the better coronavirus stock. More importantly, it's the better stock -- period.