The COVID-19 respiratory illness has fanned out across the globe, forcing governments and businesses to take unprecedented steps in the quest to slow its spread. What's more, several professional sports leagues such as the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS have all hit the pause button on their seasons. And the NCAA even had to cancel its March Madness basketball tournament in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

This is uncharted territory from both an economic and public health standpoint. No one seems to know what comes next or when the pandemic will fade into the pages of history. Even the notion that the onset of warmer weather this coming summer -- one of the key factors that halted the spread of SARS-CoV back in 2003 -- might stem the virus's spread is a shaky proposition at best.

A businessman with an umbrella staring out a storm hovering over a city.

Image source: Getty Images.

Underscoring this point, COVID-19 outbreaks have been identified in numerous subtropical and tropical nations, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This deadly respiratory ailment also made its debut over the weekend in Guam, an island territory of the United States well known for its hot and humid tropical climate. 

Social distancing and quarantines: necessary, but with consequences

Because there are no approved treatments for this novel and highly infectious coronavirus, government officials across the world have had to turn to social distancing as a primary preventive measure against further spread. And while extreme quarantines in China do appear to be "flattening the curve" (i.e., slowing the rate of infection), similar draconian measures in other financial powerhouses of the world would undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the global economy. 

For instance, strict quarantines across the U.S. would almost certainly crush small businesses and the self-employed, and do untold damage to global supply chains. In short, the unintended consequences of limiting social activity may culminate in a full-on economic depression. 

With the possibility of a global depression permeating the air, the Federal Reserve announced on Sunday that it will buy $700 billion worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities to ensure the proper functioning of the financial markets during this turbulent period. But there is only so much the Federal Reserve can do to prop up the global markets in the face of extremely limited social and economic activity.

What this all boils down to is that the world desperately needs a viable therapeutic option. Fortunately, one American biotech company might have the answer to this perplexing public health problem and serious threat to the global economy. 

A woman wearing a face mask and staring out of a window.

Image source: Getty Images.

All eyes are now on this California-based infectious disease giant

Foster City, California-based Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD) is an infectious disease juggernaut. The biotech's revolutionary HIV medicines have drastically improved the prognosis for patients infected with this immune-wrecking viral agent. Moreover, Gilead's groundbreaking hepatitis C drugs, including the megablockbusters Harvoni and Sovaldi, essentially broke the market by curing most patients. So as a leader in the fight against deadly infectious diseases in general, Gilead is unsurprisingly leading the charge in many ways against COVID-19.    

Right now, Gilead is conducting trials for an antiviral compound known as remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19. Remdesivir works by blocking a virus's ability to replicate inside a person's cells. The drug was originally developed to combat Ebola, but it has since shown signs of efficacy in pre-clinical studies against both the SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV viruses. What's important to understand is that SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV are both structurally similar to SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that manifests as the COVID-19 respiratory illness in humans. 

What's next? Gilead could announce the top-line data from some of these ongoing studies in less than a month. If the results are positive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would likely greenlight the drug in record time, perhaps before the end of April.

For the biotech and its shareholders, this key first-mover advantage in the enormous COVID-19 space is hard to quantify within the context of value creation. All we know for sure is that it would likely translate into a massive spike in revenue during the second half of 2020.

Why is this experimental drug so important?

The harsh reality is that the U.S. healthcare system may be at full capacity as soon as May due to COVID-19. Let that sink in for a moment. So without a viable pharmaceutical option, the U.S. healthcare system might actually buckle underneath an avalanche of patients in need of urgent care.

That dire forecast may sound alarmist, but the scary truth is that the U.S. healthcare system isn't prepared for an outbreak of this scale. The U.S., in fact, is on track to face the exact same capacity problems plaguing China, Italy, and Iran at the moment. 

Gilead's experimental antiviral drug may be the only realistic shot the U.S. has at avoiding this bleak outcome. The various anti-COVID-19 vaccines being developed by the likes of Moderna, Novavax, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals won't be ready for public consumption until at least the middle of 2021.

What's more, the myriad experimental treatments entering trials now are all well behind Gilead's drug from a developmental standpoint. Remdesivir, in effect, is the only drug capable of bending the curve on this global pandemic anytime soon. 

So let's all hope this biotech titan can pull off another major win and prove its mettle as the undisputed king of infectious diseases. 

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.