Neither Novavax (NVAX 1.16%) nor Vaxart (VXRT -0.64%) is at the head of the pack of drugmakers developing COVID-19 vaccine candidates. However, both stocks are way ahead of most of their rivals. Novavax shares are up close to 2,700% year to date; Vaxart stock has skyrocketed over 4,000% so far in 2020.

Which of these biotechs is more likely to win the coronavirus vaccine race? And which is the better overall pick for investors now? Here's how Novavax and Vaxart stack up against each other.

Two scientists working in a lab, with one looking through a microscope

Image source: Getty Images.

COVID-19 vaccine race

Novavax appears to be well ahead of Vaxart in terms of clinical progress for its COVID-19 program. The biotech initiated a phase 1/2 clinical study for NVX‑CoV2373 in late May. It plans to announce preliminary results from the phase 1 portion of the study later this month.

Meanwhile, Vaxart's COVID-19 vaccine candidate hasn't advanced beyond preclinical testing yet. The company announced on May 20 that it had selected its lead coronavirus vaccine candidate, and signed deals with Emergent Biosolutions and Kindred Biosciences to manufacture the vaccine. Vaxart hopes to begin a phase 1 study this year, possibly before the end of the summer.

In addition to its lead in clinical progress, Novavax ranks as the winner so far in securing funding for its COVID-19 vaccine program. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) awarded Novavax up to $388 million for the development and production of NVX-CoV2373. Novavax won a $60 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. Most importantly, it's receiving $1.6 billion in funding from Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government's initiative to accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

Vaxart hasn't landed such lucrative deals so far. However, its COVID-19 vaccine was selected by Operation Warp Speed to be part of a challenge study in nonhuman primates.

Vaxart's coronavirus vaccine candidate has one key differentiating factor, though. While most vaccines (including Novavax's NVX-CoV2373) are administered via injection, Vaxart's candidate is taken orally as a tablet. This means that Vaxart's vaccine candidate is stable at room temperatures, which could be a big plus in large-scale vaccination efforts.

The rest of the biotechs' pipelines

We can't evaluate either of these companies solely on their COVID-19 programs -- both have other candidates in development.

Novavax's lead candidate, influenza vaccine NanoFlu, achieved overwhelmingly positive results in a phase 3 study earlier this year. The company plans to file in the near future for regulatory approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If approved, NanoFlu could potentially generate peak annual sales of well over $1 billion.

In addition to NanoFlu and NVX-CoV2373, Novavax's pipeline includes two other candidates in clinical testing. ResVax flopped in a couple of late-stage studies as a vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection in infants via maternal immunization. However, Novavax still thinks it has a path to approval. The biotech also has an Ebola vaccine candidate in phase 1 testing.

Vaxart has two clinical programs. Both are oral vaccine candidates taken as tablets, with one targeting norovirus and the other targeting influenza. Vaxart is looking for development partners for these vaccine candidates.

Most likely winner

At this point, I think that between these two biotech stocks, Novavax is clearly the likely winner. It appears to be on track to win FDA approval for NanoFlu. Its COVID-19 vaccine candidate is quite promising. The company is also well-funded.

However, my view is that Vaxart remains a stock for investors to watch closely. It's too early to know whether the company's oral vaccine approach will be successful. But if it is, Vaxart could emerge as an even bigger winner than Novavax down the road.