BioCryst Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:BCRX) and Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) are both biotech companies developing products to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but the similarities end there. Each company has a distinct core competency and a different approach to growth.

If you're a speculator or a value hunter, one of these two stocks may have a place in your portfolio. But which stock is the better buy, and which will lead to lackluster portfolio performance? As with many issues in the biotech market today, the answer to this question circles back to COVID-19.

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Momentum picks up for Moderna

Moderna is a leading company in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, making it one of the most rapidly growing biotech stocks as well as one of the most-watched companies in the industry. The company's market cap has more than quadrupled over the past 12 months, growing from $4.8 billion in June 2019 to more than $24 billion today. In terms of its capacity to continue rapid growth, Moderna is flush with more than $1.2 billion in cash that it is sure to use on its COVID-19 vaccine-development efforts. 

So far, the company's COVID-19 vaccine has performed acceptably in clinical trials, with the recruiting stage of its phase 2 trial concluding in early July. Furthermore, Moderna recently initiated a second manufacturing collaboration for its vaccine candidate with Laboratorios Farmacéuticos Rovi, suggesting that its internal data on the vaccine's efficacy is promising enough to move forward with scaling up its manufacturing efforts before concluding clinical trials.

Other than its rapidly progressing COVID-19 vaccine program, Moderna doesn't have any similarly developed late-stage pipeline programs. While the company probably won't fail if its COVID-19 vaccine fails to pan out, it will likely be in the doldrums for a couple of years while it brings one of its other programs through the clinical trial process.

BioCryst bets big on galidesivir once again, this time for COVID-19

As a relatively unknown biotech company focusing on rare diseases, BioCryst is an unlikely contender in the race for vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. Aside from its COVID-19 therapeutic development efforts, BioCryst has one drug approved for sale and another drug that may be approved by the end of this year. 

While its drug on the market (Rapivab, which treats the flu) brought the company $48 million in trailing 12-month revenues, these proceeds are nowhere near the $86 million required to maintain the pace of its operations for one year. Indeed, BioCryst currently has more than $85 million in debt that may continue to grow until the company generates new revenue streams from the approval of new drugs.

BioCryst's antiviral drug, galidesivir, is a leftover from its attempts to develop therapeutics for other viral diseases including yellow fever and Ebola. The company is once again trying to find the drug a home by testing it against COVID-19. As of June, the company was only starting to recruit patients for its phase 1 COVID-19 clinical trial, putting it substantially behind in comparison with larger pharmaceutical companies developing antivirals, like Gilead (NASDAQ:GILD). This means that the trial may not start until the fall, putting the first publication of any preliminary results as distant as early 2021. 

However, if galidesivir lives up to the hype, it could be a powerful antiviral drug that's effective against COVID-19 as well as a plethora of other viral diseases, making it a momentous medical breakthrough akin to penicillin's impact on bacterial diseases. Unfortunately, given the company's difficulty in finding proof of the drug's efficacy in humans for any single indication over the course of more than seven years of active development, it seems unlikely that galidesivir will be a hit.

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Which stock is better for investors?

For investors seeking growth, Moderna is the better buy thanks to its advanced COVID-19 vaccine candidate and its demonstrated growth stemming from its vaccine-development efforts so far. BioCryst, while potentially a growth stock in the long term, has failed to generate compelling results with galidesivir's efficacy against COVID-19. 

Thus, investors should consider picking up Moderna stock before its next release of vaccine clinical-trial data in the fall. If Moderna hits a roadblock and the trial results are unfavorable, it might still be worth a buy, as the company has successfully navigated prior vaccine-development setbacks gracefully.