Clinical-stage biotech companies including Moderna (MRNA -0.15%) and Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO -2.99%) have been scoring big gains as investors bet on their COVID-19 vaccine candidates. These companies' shares have soared by 228% and 717%, respectively, in the first half of 2020. The idea of buying into that kind of performance is tempting, but the big risk is this: Clinical-stage companies don't yet have products on the market, so if their COVID-19 efforts fail, there isn't another immediate chance for revenue.

Fortunately, for those of us who like to minimize risk, there are still opportunities to invest in a COVID-19 vaccine maker. In fact, you can invest in one of the leaders. I'm talking about AstraZeneca (AZN 0.83%), a company with $23.6 billion in annual product sales and more than $24 billion in total revenue.

A researcher holds up a vaccine dose in a gloved hand.

Image source: Getty Images.

Partnership with Oxford

AstraZeneca didn't enter the playing field early on. It jumped in more than a month after Moderna's vaccine candidate started human trials. Yet, at this point, the two companies are neck and neck in the race. How did that happen?

In a wise move, AstraZeneca partnered with the University of Oxford in April for the development and distribution of their researchers' promising candidate. The vaccine entered phase 2/3 studies in May. That doesn't exactly put AstraZeneca ahead of Moderna, however. AstraZeneca's trial design, which combines phase 2 and 3 studies, is different from Moderna's. Moderna recently said it would begin phase 3 testing on July 27.

Both companies are close when it comes to timeline. Now, the real test will be study data. (And that goes for all of the companies developing COVID-19 vaccines.) AstraZeneca hasn't revealed many details, but Andrew Pollard, the study's chief investigator, said "clinical studies are progressing very well." We also may be optimistic based on the team's experience. The researchers involved were involved in development of a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) vaccine, which showed encouraging results in early clinical trials. This work on MERS, another coronavirus, gave them a head start on COVID-19 research.

Will AstraZeneca win the vaccine race, or even be second or third to produce a safe and efficacious vaccine? It's impossible to guarantee success with trials still ongoing. But the research team's experience, comments on progress, and the rapidity of development are reasons to be optimistic.

What if the program fails?

Anything is possible during clinical trials. So, what if the AstraZeneca program fails? If you've invested in AstraZeneca, you've invested not only in the COVID-19 program, but also in a healthy portfolio of drugs targeting cancer; cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic diseases; and respiratory conditions. Add to that a pipeline of 167 projects in various stages of development.

Oncology generates 40% of product sales, led by blockbuster Tagrisso, a treatment for metastatic non-small cell lung cancer. In the latest quarter, Tagrisso posted a 58% increase in revenue to $982 million, making it the company's top-selling medicine. Seven of the company's 10 best-selling drugs reported double-digit sales growth in the quarter.

AstraZeneca returned to annual total revenue growth last year after a few difficult years. Generic competition weighed on sales of blockbuster cholesterol drug Crestor, which at its peak generated $6.6 billion in annual sales, and AstraZeneca refocused its portfolio on the most promising therapeutic areas. AstraZeneca isn't yet back to the level of more than $33 billion in annual revenue it posted in 2011, but with so many drugs posting revenue growth, things are looking bright. Another plus is the company's presence in emerging markets. That market makes up 36% of sales, and in the most recent quarter, sales there climbed 16%.

AstraZeneca shares haven't increased in the triple digits this year, even on the announcement of the company's COVID-19 vaccine collaboration with Oxford. But the stock has been a reliable gainer, up 16%.

AZN Chart

AZN data by YCharts

If AstraZeneca wins the vaccine race, we can expect a big boost for the stock. If it loses, though, I'm not expecting a disastrous plunge. AstraZeneca investors know they can expect strong revenue from other programs. And that's exactly why this pharmaceutical company is the coronavirus stock I would buy right now.