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Better Coronavirus Stock: OPKO Health or Emergent Biosolutions?

By Keith Speights – Jun 13, 2020 at 7:33AM

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Which stock wins in a battle between a COVID-19 testing leader and the top contract manufacturer for COVID-19 vaccines?

Many companies have shifted into high gear to address the multiple needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two at the forefront of these efforts are OPKO Health (OPK -0.53%) and Emergent BioSolutions (EBS -1.32%).

Both OPKO and Emergent have delivered tremendous stock performances so far in 2020, especially when compared to the major market indexes, largely as a result of their COVID-19 efforts. But which of these coronavirus-focused stocks is the better pick?

Red model of a coronavirus on top of $100 bills

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for OPKO Health

OPKO jumped into the COVID-19 arena in early March, when its BioReference Laboratories unit introduced a COVID-19 test. Over the next few weeks, the company ramped up its COVID-19 efforts, launching drive-through testing in New York state and then in New Jersey, as well as Detroit and Miami.

By the end of April, OPKO offered COVID-19 antibody testing -- initially in New York City. In mid-May, the company rolled out its COVID-19 screening program to help employers make decisions about return-to-work policies.

But OPKO's COVID-19 focus isn't limited to testing. In June, the Food and Drug Administration gave a green light for the company to begin a phase 2 clinical trial evaluating Rayaldee as a treatment for patients with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19. OPKO plans to enroll 166 patients in the study, including patients with state 3 or 4 chronic kidney disease (CKD).

Rayaldee, which is approved for treating secondary hyperparathyroidism in adult patients with stage 3 or 4 CKD, is currently the primary growth driver for OPKO's pharmaceuticals business. However, it could be joined by another promising drug in the not-too-distant future. OPKO and its partner, Pfizer, expect to file for FDA approval of long-acting human growth hormone somatrogon in the second half of this year.

Around 80% of OPKO's total revenue, though, stems from its BioReference diagnostics business. BioReference's sales slipped year over year in the first quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is likely to be a temporary issue: The company's new COVID-19 tests should fuel growth in the rest of 2020 and into next year.

The case for Emergent BioSolutions

Emergent Biosolutions has emerged as the go-to manufacturer for COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) issued a task order under an existing contract worth $628 million to produce COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The effort is instrumental in the U.S. government's "Warp Speed" program to accelerate the development and production of vaccines against the novel coronavirus.

It's not just the federal government that's turning to Emergent, though. The company has also landed deals with Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and Vaxart to manufacture their COVID-19 vaccines.

And the U.S. government isn't just partnering with Emergent on manufacturing vaccines. BARDA awarded the company $14.5 million in April to advance the development of a plasma-derived therapy for treating COVID-19. Emergent's COVID-HIG is its lead COVID-19 candidate. It uses plasma donated by patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies to the novel coronavirus.

Emergent Biosolutions made nearly 38% of its total revenue in Q1 from its Narcan nasal spray for opioid-overdose treatment. That could be problematic for the company. A U.S. District Court ruled earlier this week against Emergent, in favor of generic-drug maker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, in a patent lawsuit related to the 4 mg dose of Narcan.

Other current key sources of revenue for Emergent are sales of anthrax vaccines, contract manufacturing, and government contracts and grants. With the future of Narcan in question, the company's growth is likely to be driven primarily by its COVID-19 programs over the near term.

The better coronavirus stock

Were it not for the adverse court ruling against Emergent Biosolutions in the Narcan patent litigation, my view would be that the biotech stock is a slam dunk over OPKO Health. Emergent plans to appeal the ruling, but there's no way at this point to know how the story will unfold.

Does this mean that OPKO Health automatically wins? No. The company isn't nearly as close to profitability as Emergent is -- even with the Narcan uncertainty factored in. And while OPKO's BioReference unit has performed admirably in rolling out COVID-19 testing, it faces stiff competition.

I still think that Emergent BioSolutions deserves the nod as the better coronavirus stock. It's locked up sizable COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing deals that should ensure strong revenue growth over the next year or more. My view is that Emergent's shares -- despite being shellacked this week after the U.S. District Court decision -- have room to run.

Keith Speights owns shares of Pfizer. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Emergent BioSolutions. The Motley Fool recommends Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Emergent BioSolutions Inc. Stock Quote
Emergent BioSolutions Inc.
$20.86 (-1.32%) $0.28
OPKO Health, Inc. Stock Quote
OPKO Health, Inc.
$1.88 (-0.53%) $0.01
Johnson & Johnson Stock Quote
Johnson & Johnson
$166.72 (0.33%) $0.54
Pfizer Inc. Stock Quote
Pfizer Inc.
$44.08 (-1.10%) $0.49
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited Stock Quote
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited
$7.90 (-1.98%) $0.16
Novavax, Inc. Stock Quote
Novavax, Inc.
$21.00 (-6.42%) $-1.44
Vaxart, Inc. Stock Quote
Vaxart, Inc.
$2.10 (-3.67%) $0.08

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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