Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Here's the "Official" Leader in the COVID-19 Vaccine Race

By Keith Speights – Jun 30, 2020 at 6:49AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Hint: It's not Moderna.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) says that a given anti-coronavirus product is a leader, that's about as official as it gets in the fast-moving world of COVID-19 therapies and vaccines.

Earlier this year, a top WHO executive stated that Gilead Sciences' remdesivir was the leading therapy targeting COVID-19. Remdesivir, of course, has now become the de facto standard of care for the novel coronavirus disease.

Last week, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stated in a news conference that one experimental COVID-19 vaccine appears to be "probably the leading candidate." Which vaccine is it?

Vials labeled COVID-19 Vaccine lying on a pile of $100 bills

Image source: Getty Images.

WHO's who

Swaminathan thinks that the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca (AZN -3.21%) and the University of Oxford should be viewed as the top contender right now. There are two main reasons why.

First, the AstraZeneca-Oxford AZD1222 vaccine is already in a phase 3 clinical study. No other COVID-19 vaccine candidates have yet advanced to late-stage testing. Swaminathan specifically noted "how advanced they are" and "the stage at which they are" in naming the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford as the likely leader.

Second, Swaminathan said that she thinks "AstraZeneca certainly has a more global scope at the moment in terms of where they are doing and planning their vaccine trials." The late-stage testing of AZD1222 will be conducted in several countries, with trials already in progress in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa.

The vaccine candidate was originally developed by the University of Oxford's Jenner Institute. AstraZeneca teamed up with Oxford in April and owns the rights to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine globally. AZD1222 was one of only a handful of novel coronavirus vaccines selected by the Trump administration to receive federal funds as part of Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to rapidly develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

A close No. 2

Another COVID-19 vaccine is a close No. 2, according to the WHO chief scientist. Swaminathan views Moderna (MRNA -0.37%) as "not far behind" AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Moderna's messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccine mRNA-1273 is currently in phase 2 clinical testing. The biotech plans to begin a phase 3 study of the vaccine in July. Like AZD1222, Moderna's mRNA-1273 was included in the select group of COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are receiving federal funding in the Operation Warp Speed program.

Stephane Bancel, Moderna's CEO, is optimistic about the chances of success. He said in a CNBC interview recently that he believes that the probability of mRNA-1273 going on to win approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is between 80% and 90%.

A crowded field

Investors should be wary of banking on AstraZeneca to emerge as the winner in the COVID-19 vaccine race just because it's the apparent leader right now. Nearly 150 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are currently being researched. Seventeen of those are in clinical trials, with more on the way.

It's impossible to know which, if any, of these experimental vaccines will be successful. It's not out of the question -- and perhaps even likely -- that multiple drugmakers will eventually win regulatory approvals for their COVID-19 vaccines.

The biggest winners from an investing perspective could very well be the small biotech stocks in the race. Novavax, for example, has a phase 1/2 clinical study underway for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. BioNTech, like Moderna, is testing an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine with its partner, Pfizer.

AstraZeneca claims a market cap of nearly $70 billion. Success for its COVID-19 vaccine would definitely be a major catalyst for the stock. But success for a small drugmaker like Novavax or BioNTech would almost certainly be transformational for either company.

Keith Speights owns shares of Gilead Sciences and Pfizer. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Gilead Sciences. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

AstraZeneca PLC Stock Quote
AstraZeneca PLC
$54.91 (-3.21%) $-1.82
Moderna, Inc. Stock Quote
Moderna, Inc.
$125.15 (-0.37%) $0.47

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 10/07/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.