Key Points

  • Researchers say about 67% of the population must be vaccinated or exposed to the coronavirus to reach herd immunity.
  • To reach herd immunity, about 5.2 billion people will need vaccination.
  • AstraZeneca, promising to deliver about 3 billion doses of vaccine next year, has the greatest capacity among developers.

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Often, we refer to companies developing coronavirus vaccines as rivals. We're all betting on which one will make it to market first or become top supplier. There is, of course, a leadership position up for grabs -- and not every company will win it.

But considering worldwide need for a vaccine, there is room for many players. As of Dec. 1, 11 coronavirus vaccine developers have moved their projects into phase 3 clinical trials. Of those 11, five are companies based in the U.S. or Europe. We need all five of these companies -- and likely their Chinese and Russian rivals -- to end the pandemic. Let's take a look at where things stand.

Gloved hand holding up a vial in front of images of the coronavirus

Image source: Getty Images.

Reaching herd immunity

The goal of vaccination is to reach herd immunity. Herd immunity happens when a certain percentage of the population achieves immunity to a virus. The result? The virus can no longer spread easily from person to person. Each illness has a different threshold for herd immunity. To achieve herd immunity for coronavirus, between 50% and 67% of the population must be vaccinated or have had exposure to the virus.

Today's global population totals about 7.8 billion people. Of course, some may be recovered coronavirus patients, so may already have antibodies in their systems for protection. But let's assume everyone needs a vaccine -- especially since it isn't yet clear how long antibodies last in recovered patients. (A recent paper in the journal Immunity indicates that production of neutralizing antibodies -- those that block infection -- may last five to seven months.) Now, let's use the more conservative 67% herd immunity benchmark. Researchers use that one more frequently than the lower estimate.

This means that we'll need vaccines for 5.2 billion people. That doesn't mean 5.2 billion doses, though. Four of the five leaders I'll mention here are seeking to bring two-dose vaccines to market. And the fifth company is trying for a one-dose vaccine. That means we need 9.4 billion doses. Can our leaders in the race deliver?

The greatest capacity

The company with the greatest production capacity is AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:AZN). The big pharma is set to provide about three billion doses as of next year. AstraZeneca recently said it was preparing to submit data to all countries offering emergency authorization.

The second largest in terms of capacity is Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX). The biotech plans to produce two billion doses by mid-2021. Novavax expects interim phase 3 data in the early part of the first quarter.

Next, we have the team of Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX). They say they will make 1.3 billion doses available next year. On Nov. 20, the companies became the first to request an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a coronavirus vaccine candidate.

Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) aims to produce 500 million to one billion doses next year. The biotech company filed for an EUA on Nov. 30.

And finally, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) is studying a single-dose vaccine. The phase 3 trial resumed in October after a halt due to unexplained illness in a trial participant. A review didn't find evidence linking the illness to the vaccine candidate. It's unclear when interim data may be available. But J&J promises the delivery of one billion doses annually.

Together, the companies may produce as many as 8.3 billion doses. That falls short of the 9.4 billion target I mention above.

Company Number of doses to produce Current stage of development
AstraZeneca 3 billion  Preparing to submit for EUA 
Novavax 2 billion  Phase 3 trials-- interim data expected in early first quarter
Pfizer/BioNTech 1.3 billion  EUA request submitted to FDA Nov. 20
Moderna 500 million to 1 billion  EUA request submitted to FDA Nov. 30
J&J 1 billion  Phase 3 trials

Data source: Company press releases. Table by author.

What does this mean for investors?

Now, what does this mean for a vaccine's chances of ending the pandemic? And what does all of this mean for investors? It's clear that in the near term, there won't be enough vaccine doses for everyone. But that doesn't necessarily spell disaster. Little by little, vaccination can slow coronavirus transmission. And that is a step toward ending the pandemic.

For investors, this means you don't have to select one winner of this coronavirus vaccine race. All players with solid efficacy and safety results are needed -- even those that will come to market further down the road. So, your investment in one of the companies today might pay off later if its vaccine candidate is approved. The stock prices are likely to rise on product approval and as that product generates revenue.

Shares of treatment makers will benefit as well. Since vaccination won't immediately halt the virus, patients will need therapies well into the future.

Leaders in the vaccine race are close to crossing the finish line. But in this race, there are prizes for any strong candidate that finishes later in the game. That's positive for the coronavirus fight and for investors.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.