Drugmakers, medical device makers, and other companies are scrambling to do whatever they can in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of them are in a position to make a significant difference in the fight against COVID-19.
You can put Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN -1.37%) and Roche Holdings (RHHBY 1.47%) in that category. When the history books are written about the global coronavirus crisis, both of these successful companies could be mentioned. Which is the better stock to buy right now? Here's how Regeneron and Roche compare.
The case for Regeneron
There's a lot of buzz surrounding Regeneron right now because of two ways the biotech has stepped into the coronavirus fight. Regeneron and its partner, Sanofi, are evaluating Kevzara in a phase 2/3 clinical study in treating patients with severe cases of COVID-19. The company is also developing a COVID-19 cocktail therapy that should move to clinical testing this summer.
Kevzara is already approved for treating rheumatoid arthritis, so safety issues aren't a huge concern. You might wonder how an arthritis drug could be a potential treatment for COVID-19. The answer is that there's a chance a protein called IL-6, which can promote inflammation causing rheumatoid arthritis, could also cause inflammation in the lungs in COVID-19 patients.
Meanwhile, Regeneron also has high hopes for an experimental cocktail therapy that could potentially be used both as a prophylaxis to prevent novel coronavirus infection and as a treatment for patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The biotech has identified hundreds of antibodies that could neutralize the virus and is in the process of picking the two most effective ones from the bunch.
Of course, Regeneron has a lot more going on than just its coronavirus programs. The company claims two blockbuster drugs that continue to deliver solid growth: eye-disease drug Eylea and atopic dermatitis drug Dupixent. Regeneron and Sanofi hope to pick up an additional indication for Dupixent as a treatment for asthma in pediatric patients -- if all goes well with a late-stage study that's under way.
In addition, Regeneron's cancer immunotherapy Libtayo is picking up momentum. So is Kevzara, for that matter, with sales soaring 70% year over year in the fourth quarter of 2019. Regeneron's pipeline also includes promising new candidates such as evinacumab in treating a rare form of high cholesterol as well as Ebola antiviral drug REGN-EB3.
While most stocks have plunged in the coronavirus-caused stock market crash, Regeneron's shares have jumped more than 20%. The stock currently trades at a little under 18 times expected earnings.
The case for Roche
Roche also has a rheumatoid arthritis drug, Actemra, that blocks the IL-6 protein, like Regeneron's Kevzara does. The Swiss drugmaker plans to begin enrolling patients in a phase 3 clinical study for treating patients with severe COVID-19 in April. Meanwhile, clinical studies of Actemra in treating COVID-19 are already in progress in China.
However, Roche is having an immediate impact on the fight against COVID-19 with its diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus. The FDA granted emergency use authorization (EUA) for Roche's new test earlier this month. The test takes less than four hours to run, which is an improvement over other existing tests, but it isn't as fast as a new test made by Danaher's Cepheid subsidiary, which can have results in 45 minutes.
A lot more COVID-19 diagnostics tests are needed in the U.S. and in other countries. Roche plans to crank up production to produce millions of its tests each month to meet the urgent demand.
While Roche's coronavirus efforts are important, the giant healthcare company is also busy on multiple other fronts. Sales are booming for the company's multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus, the most successful new product ever launched by Roche. Its cancer drugs Perjeta and Tecentriq are also performing well.
Although pharmaceuticals are Roche's biggest moneymaker, its diagnostics division also continues to grow sales at a solid pace. The company's immunodiagnostics business is the division's biggest growth driver.
Roche stock is holding up better than most in the wake of the market crash. However, its shares are down 13% year to date. Roche is also valued relatively attractively, with shares trading at below 16 times expected earnings.
Both of these healthcare stocks could be winners in the battle against COVID-19. If I had to pick just one of them, though, it would be Roche.
My view is that Roche's growth prospects look a little better than Regeneron's over the next few years. The company's dividend, which currently yields more than 3%, should enable Roche to deliver solid total returns. Also, because of its more diversified business, the risks associated with investing in Roche appear to be lower than those for investing in Regeneron.
Having said that, I think the coronavirus pandemic has led to even better alternatives than either Roche or Regeneron. My take is that there are many more attractive stocks to buy right now at discounted prices.