Bill Gates isn't an epidemiologist. He has no medical training. But when the billionaire philanthropist talks about vaccines, it pays to listen.

He and his wife founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. Since then, the nonprofit foundation has invested heavily in vaccine development across the world. Gates has personally championed making vaccines available to people in developing nations.

When the coronavirus outbreak began, he was an early advocate of using science to prevent the virus's spread. The Gates Foundation quickly began funding initiatives to develop vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests for COVID-19.

CNBC interviewed Bill Gates earlier this week about his thoughts on the state of COVID-19 vaccine development. His comments indicate that he believes one company is a clear leader in the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine: Pfizer (PFE 0.11%)

Gloved hands holding a vaccine bottle and syringe.

Image source: Getty Images.

Bill Gates' reasoning

Gates doesn't think a coronavirus vaccine will be available by Election Day, as President Trump has suggested. He told CNBC, "None of the vaccines are likely to seek approval in the U.S. before the end of October." However, Gates sounded optimistic that "at least two or three" coronavirus vaccines could seek emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration by December or January.

He didn't hesitate to identify the company he viewed as the leader. Gates stated in the CNBC interview, "The only vaccine that, if everything went perfectly, might seek the emergency use license by the end of October, would be Pfizer."

Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech (BNTX 2.23%), initiated a phase 2/3 clinical study on July 27 evaluating coronavirus vaccine candidate BNT162b2. A few days ago, the two companies announced that they hope to expand the size of the study from 30,000 participants to 44,000. Pfizer and BioNTech remain optimistic that they will report efficacy results for BNT162b2 by the end of October.

This late October target is no doubt a key reason why Bill Gates views Pfizer as the leader in the coronavirus vaccine race. He also probably used a simple process of elimination to form his opinion.

There are currently only three coronavirus vaccine candidates in late-stage testing in the U.S. The other two candidates belong to AstraZeneca and Moderna. AstraZeneca paused its late-stage trials last week. While the big drugmaker has received a green light to resume testing in the U.K., it still awaits FDA approval to restart U.S. testing. Meanwhile, Moderna slowed its enrollment in a late-stage study of coronavirus vaccine candidate mRNA-1273 to increase the diversity of participants.

Is Pfizer a good bet?

Pfizer seems to have the inside track to become the first to win FDA authorization for its coronavirus vaccine. But is the big pharma stock a good bet for investors?

The Gates Foundation apparently thinks so. The foundation invested in Pfizer back in 2002 and still owns shares. It also owns shares of Pfizer's coronavirus development partner, BioNTech.

Of course, Pfizer and BioNTech aren't likely to have the coronavirus vaccines market all to themselves for very long. It's quite possible that other vaccines could eventually capture a higher market share than BNT162b2. But Pfizer's fortunes don't depend entirely on its COVID-19 programs.

The company already has blockbusters on the market, such as breast cancer drug Ibrance, blood thinner Eliquis, and pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar 13. Pfizer's pipeline includes 89 programs focusing on six therapeutic categories. Four of those programs currently await regulatory approval. Another 23 are in late-stage testing.

Pfizer expects to complete the planned merger of its Upjohn unit with Mylan later this year. That will set the stage for the company's growth to increase significantly. Pfizer will also continue to offer an attractive dividend after the Upjohn-Mylan transaction closes.

Don't look for Pfizer to deliver sizzling growth. However, the stock could provide market-beating total returns with its dividends. My view is that Bill Gates is right that Pfizer is the clear leader in the coronavirus vaccine race, and I agree with the Gates Foundation that the stock is a pretty good bet for investors.