Winners are usually easy to spot. In sports, for example, you only have to look at the scoreboard to see which team is winning. But how do you determine which companies are the winners when it comes to developing a coronavirus vaccine?

While there's no scoreboard per se, there are objective, quantifiable metrics you can look at to identify winners even in the scramble to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Thus far, there's one hands-down biggest winner in the coronavirus vaccine race: Novavax (NVAX 2.31%).

Scientist holding a vial labeled COVID-19 vaccine with one hand and giving a thumbs-up with the other.

Image source: Getty Images.

A contender in clinical progress and funding

Some might view clinical progress as the best way to evaluate which companies are winning in COVID-19 vaccine development. Others could think that the amount of funding lined up is just as, and perhaps even more, critical. Novavax is a top contender in both areas.

There are 10 coronavirus vaccine candidates worldwide that are currently in late-stage testing, according to the World Health Organization. Novavax ranks in that elite group. Since half of the late-stage vaccines belong to Chinese or Russian drugmakers and aren't likely to achieve commercial success in the U.S. and Europe, Novavax's position looks even better for the most lucrative markets.

Granted, Novavax has only initiated a phase 3 study of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, NVX-CoV2373, in the U.K. at this point. But the company should soon begin a large late-stage study of the experimental vaccine in the U.S., potentially in October.

Novavax also stands as one of the top coronavirus vaccine makers in terms of funding commitments. The biotech has secured more than $2 billion in total funding from the U.S. government and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). In addition, Novavax has lined up supply deals with the U.S. and U.K. and reached an agreement in principle to supply up to 76 million doses of NVX-CoV2373 to Canada.

The most important scoreboard

While Novavax is clearly among the top COVID-19 vaccine companies based on clinical progress and funding, you probably noticed that it isn't the indisputable leader in those categories. However, Novavax is unequivocally the winner at this point on the most important yardstick for investors: stock performance.

Here's how Novavax stacks up against the stocks of other key drugmakers with late-stage coronavirus vaccine candidates so far in 2020:

NVAX Chart

NVAX data by YCharts

It's not even close. Novavax is absolutely clobbering all of its leading rivals, even with the biotech stock well below its peak this summer.

Of course, there are plenty of other drugmakers with COVID-19 vaccine candidates in clinical testing that haven't yet advanced to phase 3 testing. How does Novavax's performance so far this year compare against those stocks? Again, Novavax is the clear leader.

NVAX Chart

NVAX data by YCharts

There is one biotech not included in the above chart. CureVac conducted its initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq stock exchange in August. Since then, shares of the German biotech have fallen by a double-digit percentage. Novavax's huge year-to-date blows away CureVac's performance.

But the race isn't over yet

To be sure, the coronavirus vaccine race is far from over. Any of the vaccines in late-stage testing could run into problems, including Novavax's NVX-CoV2373. 

Once vaccines obtain regulatory approvals and/or emergency use authorizations, other factors will rise in importance, including logistical considerations. Novavax could hold an advantage over some of its rivals in that NVX-CoV2373 can be stored at temperatures between roughly 35 degrees and 46 degrees Fahrenheit instead of requiring freezing at lower temperatures.

On the other hand, Novavax and some other drugmakers could be at a disadvantage because their coronavirus vaccines require two doses. Johnson & Johnson's JNJ-78436735 only requires one dose.

But the future is uncertain. All we can attempt to accurately evaluate is what's right before us, and the current winner in the coronavirus vaccine race is easy to spot.