One way to gauge whether a company is part of the effort to develop coronavirus treatments or vaccines is to simply look at its stock price. While the overall stock market has plummeted this year, coronavirus-focused stocks have generally performed pretty well. Some have performed exceptionally well.

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) is a good example of the former category. Shares of the healthcare giant are in positive territory year to date, an impressive achievement considering the dismal returns this year for most stocks. Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) is a poster child of the latter category. The biotech stock has nearly tripled in 2020 thanks to investors' excitement about its COVID-19 vaccine program.

But which of these stocks is the better pick for long-term investors? Here are the arguments for both J&J and Inovio.

Hundred dollar bill with Ben Franklin wearing a protective mask

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson is battling COVID-19 on two key fronts. The company has expanded its partnership with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to evaluate existing antiviral molecules to try to identify potential treatments for the novel coronavirus disease. J&J is also developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

The company plans to begin clinical testing in humans in September for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine. This timeline is two months earlier than J&J originally expected to begin early stage clinical studies. The big healthcare company also committed to producing more than 1 billion doses of the vaccine even before it's known whether or not the vaccine works.

Even if J&J is successful with its coronavirus efforts on both fronts, there are more important reasons to consider the stock. One key argument for Johnson & Johnson is its stability. The company has been in business for 134 years. It generated over $82 billion in sales last year with earnings topping $15 billion. 

Another reason for investors to like J&J is its diversification. Johnson & Johnson isn't just one company; it's an amalgamation of more than 260 companies across the world. These individual companies are organized into three segments: consumer, medical devices, and pharmaceutical. While J&J's pharmaceutical business is typically its strongest growth driver, its consumer unit took the honor in the first quarter of 2020 due to customers stocking up on over-the-counter products such as Listerine, Motrin, and Tylenol.

Johnson & Johnson has also been a longtime favorite for income-seeking investors. With its latest dividend hike announced earlier this month, the company has increased its dividend for a remarkable 58 consecutive years.  

The case for Inovio

It's not surprising that Inovio has become one of the leaders in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The small biotech already had a phase 2 study in progress for an experimental vaccine targeting another type of coronavirus, MERS. Inovio used its platform for the MERS vaccine to quickly develop another vaccine targeting the novel coronavirus.

The company began a phase 1 clinical study for that vaccine, INO-4800, earlier in April -- well ahead of J&J and only a little behind Moderna. It has also attracted outside funding to help advance its coronavirus program. In January, Inovio announced that it was receiving up to $9 million from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to fund preclinical and early stage clinical studies of INO-4800. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also granted Inovio $5 million for the acceleration of testing of its device that could be used for intradermal delivery of its COVID-19 vaccine.

While Inovio's COVID-19 program has captured investors' attention, the biotech has other promising pipeline candidates. Its lead candidate is VGX-3100. Inovio is evaluating the drug in late-stage clinical studies as a treatment for cervical high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (HSIL). VGX-3100 is also being evaluated in phase 2 studies targeting anal HSIL and vulvar HSIL.

If VGX-3100 is successful, it could bode well for AstraZeneca's testing of another drug, MEDI0457, in treating head and neck cancer. MEDI0457 combines VGX-3100 with a DNA-based immune activator.

Inovio's pipeline also includes a couple of other experimental immunotherapies targeting recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (a rare disease caused by human papillomavirus) and brain cancer. In addition, Inovio is developing several other vaccines targeting Ebola, Lassa fever, HIV, and Zika.

Better pick

Success for its coronavirus program would certainly spark a bigger surge for Inovio than similar success would for Johnson & Johnson. But does that mean Inovio is the better pick? Not so fast.

There's no guarantee that either company will be successful with their respective coronavirus efforts. Factoring all of the risks into the equation, I think that J&J is the better choice for long-term investors. It's a pretty safe bet that Johnson & Johnson will continue to generate big profits 10 years from now and beyond. With Inovio, there's only a big question mark.

Aggressive investors might like to roll the dice with a clinical-stage biotech stock like Inovio. My view, though, is that most investors wanting a higher probability of making money will be better off going with Johnson & Johnson.