Quite a few drugmakers are racing to develop antiviral therapies to combat novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 and vaccines to immunize against infection from the virus. Two of the clear leaders on both of these fronts are Gilead Sciences (GILD 0.64%) and Moderna (MRNA -1.56%).

Both stocks have performed relatively well so far in 2020 as a result of their coronavirus programs. Moderna has delivered the more impressive gains, but which stock is the better pick moving forward? Here's how these two coronavirus-focused biotechs stack up against each other.

Gloved hand stopping wooden domino-like blocks spelling COVID19 from causing other wooden blocks to fall over

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Gilead Sciences

You know a company is a leader in the fight against COVID-19 when a World Health Organization (WHO) official says that one of its drugs is the most promising candidate. That's exactly what happened in late February, with WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward singling out Gilead's antiviral drug remdesivir.

Gilead is currently conducting late-stage clinical studies evaluating remdesivir in treating COVID-19. The biotech has received so many compassionate-use requests for the drug that it had to stop accepting new requests except for pregnant women and children under age 18 with severe cases of COVID-19.

The first results from Gilead's late-stage testing of remdesivir are expected in April. If results are positive, expect regulatory approvals to come quickly. It's quite possible that the drug could become the standard of care for COVID-19 at least for a while.

In the meantime, there are a lot of other things to like about Gilead. The company is a bonafide juggernaut in the HIV world, with five blockbuster drugs for the indication. Biktarvy is on pace to become Gilead's biggest HIV winner ever -- for now, anyway. Gilead is also testing an experimental long-acting HIV drug in phase 2 clinical studies that could take the throne in a few years.

The company has been best-known for its antiviral programs, including drugs targeting HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV). However, Gilead is also now a leader in cancer cell therapy. It could soon be a key player in the immunology market if filgotinib wins regulatory approvals for treating rheumatoid arthritis later this year.

In addition to its solid product lineup and pipeline, Gilead offers one of the more attractive dividends in all of healthcare. Its dividend yield stands at close to 3.7%. With strong cash flow and a hefty cash stockpile of $25.8 billion as of the end of 2019, Gilead is in a great position to keep those dividends flowing and growing in the future.

The case for Moderna

While Gilead is leading the pack in developing a treatment for COVID-19, Moderna is at the forefront in developing a potential vaccine to protect against the novel coronavirus. The company reported last week that the first patient had been dosed in a phase 1 clinical study of experimental messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine mRNA-1273 that's being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

To underscore just how important Moderna is in the coronavirus vaccine community, it was one of only seven drugmakers invited to meet with President Trump and other government leaders at the White House earlier this month. All of the other companies (including Gilead) were several times larger than Moderna, but the small biotech's head start in developing a coronavirus vaccine earned it a spot at the table.

It's going to be a while before we know how safe and effective Moderna's vaccine is, though. The NIH study involves two doses of the company's mRNA vaccine that will be given 28 days apart. The individuals in the study will then be followed for 12 months after the second vaccination. Moderna is already making plans for a potential phase 2 study that it would conduct on its own.

While everyone anxiously awaits the results from the NIH study, Moderna has other irons in the fire. It plans to announce interim results from a phase 2 study for cytomegalovirus (CMV) vaccine mRNA-1647 in the third quarter of 2020. 

Moderna's pipeline also includes more than a dozen other programs in clinical testing. These include a handful of programs that have big partners. AstraZeneca and Merck have teamed up with Moderna to develop experimental cancer vaccines and immunotherapies. AstraZeneca is also working with Moderna on testing a regenerative drug targeting coronary artery disease myocardial ischemia.

Unlike Gilead, Moderna isn't profitable yet. Most of its revenue comes from its collaborations. However, the company is in a good position to fund its operations for a couple more years, with $1.26 billion in cash, cash equivalents, and investments at the end of 2019. 

Better pick

If you're looking for the biotech stock that could enjoy the biggest gain from success with its coronavirus program, Moderna's the better choice. However, that doesn't make Moderna the better stock to buy. My view is that Gilead Sciences is the hands-down winner overall.

Gilead could potentially have its product on the market before Moderna will have even early results for its experimental coronavirus vaccine. And if remdesivir isn't successful, Gilead has plenty of other growth drivers. I'm especially optimistic about the prospects for filgotinib. It's also hard to beat Gilead's tremendous dividend yield. Regardless of what happens with its coronavirus efforts, my view is that Gilead looks like a good stock to buy and hold for the long run.