Drugmakers big and small are pulling out all the stops to develop treatments and vaccines for novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. Two that threw their hats into the ring early are Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO -3.44%) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK -0.24%).

Inovio is only a fraction of the size of GlaxoSmithKline but appears to be ahead with respect to advancing an experimental coronavirus vaccine to clinical testing. Does this lead make Inovio a better stock to buy right now -- or is GSK the smarter pick?

Gloved hand holding vial of blood with a label stating coronavirus positive.

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Inovio

Inovio was working on coronavirus vaccines well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Coming into 2020, the company already had an experimental vaccine in phase 2 clinical testing for treating MERS, a member of the coronavirus family. CEO J. Joseph Kim said that Inovio used its platform to design DNA vaccine INO-4800, targeting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, within three hours after the genetic sequence of the virus was published.

In January, Inovio won a $5 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to fund preclinical and phase 1 clinical testing of INO-4800. The biotech expects the phase 1 study of its experimental vaccine to begin in April. Inovio is already planning to scale up production of INO-4800 and intends to make 1 million doses by the end of the year.

The company's coronavirus program has made it one of the hottest biotech stocks on the market this year. Actually, Inovio has been one of the hottest stocks, period, with most stocks crashing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its shares more than quadrupled year to date earlier this month before giving up some of the gains. The stock has still more than doubled so far this year.

Prior to the COVID-19 panic, Inovio's most prominent program was VGX-3100. The company expects to report results from a late-stage clinical study of the immunotherapy in treating cervical high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (HSIL) by the fourth quarter of 2020. It also plans to present preliminary data from a couple of phase 2 studies of VGX-3100 in treating vulvar HSIL and anal HSIL later in March.

AstraZeneca is testing MEDI0457 (which was developed by Inovio) in a phase 2 study in combination with Imfinzi in treating head and neck cancer. Inovio is working with Regeneron to evaluate INO-5401 in combination with Libtayo in a phase 2 study in treating brain cancer. It's initiating a phase 1/2 study of INO-3107 in treating recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a rare disease caused by the human papillomavirus. In addition, Inovio's pipeline includes several experimental vaccine programs targeting Ebola, HIV, Lasso fever, MERS, and Zika.

The case for GlaxoSmithKline

GlaxoSmithKline is a longtime leader in developing vaccines. When the novel coronavirus was identified as the cause of pneumonia cases in China, the big drugmaker knew that its expertise could help in the effort to fight the viral outbreak.

In February, GSK announced that it was collaborating with CEPI to make its vaccine adjuvant platform technology available to any CEPI-funded entity working on COVID-19 vaccines. This adjuvant technology boosts the immune response in vaccines. 

GSK is also partnering with Chinese drugmaker Clover Biopharmaceuticals. Clover developed a promising COVID-19 vaccine that's currently in preclinical testing. GSK is contributing its vaccine adjuvant platform to help improve the potency of Clover's experimental vaccine.

But other vaccines are the primary story for GlaxoSmithKline. Its Shingrix shingles vaccine has become a huge winner for the company. Meningitis vaccines Bexsero and Menveo and older vaccines including Boostrix, Infanrix, and Pediarix are also delivering solid sales growth.

Although GSK continues to deal with falling sales for respiratory drug Advair, newer drugs Trelegy Ellipta and Nucala are helping pick up the slack. HIV drugs Juluca and Dovata are enjoying strong momentum. So are lupus drug Benlysta and ovarian cancer drug Zejula. 

Perhaps the most attractive thing about GlaxoSmithKline, though, is its dividend. GSK's dividend yield currently stands at more than 7% as a result of its stock plunging over the past month.

Better pick

Inovio could be the bigger winner if its coronavirus program is successful. But that's a big "if" for now. My view is that GlaxoSmithKline is the better pick. It's profitable, whereas Inovio isn't. GSK also has a diversified lineup of approved products and a broader pipeline than Inovio has. And we can't forget the big drugmaker's juicy dividend.

While I think GSK is the better choice over Inovio, though, I wouldn't put either stock on my list to buy right now. Why? With the coronavirus-fueled bear market, there are simply too many other great stocks with exceptional growth prospects that can be bought at a bargain price.