Most stocks have performed dismally so far in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But biotech stocks, in general, have fared pretty well. Some have even delivered exceptional returns in recent months.

Moderna (MRNA -2.50%) is definitely in that category, with its shares skyrocketing 160% higher. Biocryst Pharmaceuticals (BCRX -0.41%) is an example of a biotech stock that hasn't been a huge winner but still outperformed major market indexes. Its shares are down slightly year to date -- much better than the double-digit percentage decline for the S&P 500 index.

Which of these two biotech stocks is the better pick for investors going forward? Here's how Moderna and Biocryst compare.

Two scientists standing beside each other in a lab with only their hands and midsections visible while the scientists hold lab glassware

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Moderna

If you handicap the race for developing a novel coronavirus vaccine based on how quickly a drugmaker advances to clinical testing, Moderna is in first place. Last month, the biotech announced the initiation of a phase 1 clinical study evaluating messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine mRNA-1273 in immunizing against the novel coronavirus. Moderna became the first company with an experimental COVID-19 vaccine to be tested in humans in the U.S.

Technically, though, it wasn't Moderna conducting this study. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is running the clinical trial evaluating mRNA-1273. The NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) even collaborated with Moderna in designing the vaccine. This close relationship with the NIH gives Moderna increased credibility in the eyes of many investors.

But while a lot of people are talking about Moderna because of its COVID-19 program, the biotech has several other promising pipeline candidates. Moderna recently completed enrollment for a phase 2 study evaluating experimental cytomegalovirus (CMV) vaccine mRNA-1647 and hopes to report interim data in the third quarter. If all goes well, the vaccine will advance to a late-stage study in 2021. 

Moderna also has a couple of other phase 2 programs, both of which involve big partners. It's working with Merck on developing personalized cancer vaccine mRNA-4157. AstraZeneca licensed the rights to AZD8601, a localized regenerative therapeutic targeting coronary artery disease.  

In addition, Moderna's pipeline includes several early-stage programs. The company is working on mRNA vaccines for avian flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and Zika. It's also developing therapies targeting the Chikungunya virus and several types of cancer.

The case for Biocryst Pharmaceuticals

Biocryst Pharmaceuticals is also on the COVID-19 stage with its antiviral drug galidesivir. The company announced earlier this month that it has begun a phase 2 clinical study in Brazil evaluating the drug in treating COVID-19. Galidesivir was originally developed for treating Marburg virus disease but has shown potential in other viruses.

Unlike Moderna, though, Biocryst already has one product on the market. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Rapivab in 2014 for treating influenza in adults and in 2017 for treating influenza in pediatric patients two years and older. Rapivab hasn't been a huge commercial success story for Biocryst, however, with the company recording sales of $13.9 million from the drug in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The big story for Biocryst is berotralstat. Earlier this year, the company filed for U.S. and Japanese approvals of the drug for the prevention of hereditary angioedema (HAE) attacks. HAE is an inherited disorder where patients experience recurrent attacks of severe swelling, often in the arms, legs, and face.

Biocryst already has a partner for the commercialization of berotralstat in Japan. Torii Pharmaceutical paid the biotech $22 million upfront for the Japanese rights to the HAE drug. In addition, Biocryst stands to receive up to $20 million in milestone payments plus tiered royalties ranging from the mid-teens to up to 40% of Japanese net sales of berotralstat.

The company is evaluating a liquid form of berotralstat in a phase 2 clinical study for treating acute HAE. Its pipeline also includes two other early-stage programs: oral Factor D inhibitor BCX9930 and BCX9250, which targets rare connective tissue disease fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP).

Better buy

Although Moderna has been the bigger winner this year by far, Biocryst is the more attractive of the two biotech stocks. Biocryst's market cap is only 3% of Moderna's market cap, but the company has a more advanced pipeline than Moderna does and is already generating revenue.

This wild discrepancy between valuations is obviously due to the hype for Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine. Keep in mind, though, that there are quite a few other experimental COVID-19 vaccines in development. Even if Moderna's mRNA-1273 vaccine is successful in clinical testing, it's possible that other vaccines could be successful, too. 

While I think that Biocryst is the better pick over Moderna, I'm not really a fan of either stock. My view is that there are far too many other stocks to buy that offer better risk-reward propositions.