Disruption has been the norm for many businesses in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This disruption worked to the detriment of most companies. But for some, the changing dynamics brought by the coronavirus outbreak have been positive catalysts. You can put BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX) and Emergent BioSolutions (NYSE:EBS) firmly in the latter category.

BioNTech stock skyrocketed more than 630% year to date in July before giving up some of its gains. Shares of the German biotech are still up 115% so far in 2020 thanks to intense interest in its novel coronavirus vaccine candidate. Emergent BioSolutions stock has soared nearly 140% year to date due to its COVID-19 programs.

Which of these two stocks is the better pick now? Here's how BioNTech and Emergent BioSolutions stack up against each other.

Gloved hand holding a vial labeled COVID-19 and a syringe in front of a background of scientists, a microscope, and test tubes

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for BioNTech

BioNTech began work on developing a novel coronavirus vaccine earlier this year. On March 16, the company announced a collaboration with Chinese drugmaker Fosun Pharma to develop and commercialize the lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate from its BNT162 program in China. 

A day later, BioNTech announced an even more significant deal. Big pharma company Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) teamed up with the small German biotech to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine throughout all of the world except for China. BioNTech received an upfront payment of $185 million ($113 million of this total was an equity investment from Pfizer). It could also receive up to $563 million in future milestone payments.

Pfizer and BioNTech now rank among the leaders in the coronavirus vaccine race. The two companies began a pivotal phase 2/3 clinical study of lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate BNT162b2 in late July and hope to report results as early as this October. They have also lined up supply deals with the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

BioNTech's pipeline includes eight other clinical programs as well. BNT122 is the candidate farthest along in clinical testing. BioNTech and partner Roche are evaluating the experimental therapy combined with Merck's Keytruda in a phase 2 study as a potential treatment for melanoma.

The company also recently announced plans to collaborate with Regeneron to evaluate BNT111 combined with cancer immunotherapy Libtayo in a phase 2 study as a potential treatment for melanoma. BioNTech's early stage programs target several other types of cancer.

Investors' excitement about the potential for BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine candidate has fueled impressive gains for the biotech stock and driven its market cap to nearly $16 billion. BioNTech has no approved products on the market yet and remains unprofitable. However, the company's stock offering in July put it in a strong position financially with a cash stockpile of close to $1.4 billion.

The case for Emergent BioSolutions

In early March, Emergent BioSolutions announced an agreement with Novavax to manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In the following weeks and months, Emergent signed deals with other COVID-19 vaccine developers, including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Vaxart.

The U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed also gave Emergent a new task order in June valued at $628 million under an existing contract to manufacture coronavirus vaccines. Emergent will make its contract development and manufacturing expertise available to coronavirus vaccine developers supported by the U.S. government.

But Emergent BioSolutions' coronavirus efforts go beyond manufacturing vaccines for other companies. Emergent is also developing experimental therapies for treating COVID-19 using plasma obtained from patients who have recovered from the disease. 

The company already markets several products. These include anthrax vaccines Anthrasil and BioThrax, smallpox vaccine ACAM2000, and Narcan nasal spray for opioid overdose treatment. In June, Emergent lost a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court related to a key patent for Narcan. The company plans to appeal the decision.

Emergent's pipeline includes seven clinical programs. Its lead candidate, Vaxchora, is being evaluated in a phase 3 study in vaccinating children against cholera infection. Emergent has a couple of vaccine candidates in phase 2 testing, including one for anthrax and one for chikungunya virus. Several more are in preclinical testing, including a universal influenza vaccine. In addition to its two COVID-19 plasma therapy candidates in phase 1 testing, the company is also evaluating an experimental Zika virus treatment. 

Even after the stock's big run so far this year, Emergent's valuation stands near $7 billion. The company is profitable and could deliver higher earnings in the future with its coronavirus vaccine manufacturing deals. 

Better coronavirus stock

Emergent stands to profit regardless of which COVID-19 vaccines succeed. That makes it less risky than BioNTech. Emergent's valuation is also less than half that of BioNTech, but it's generating profits that BioNTech isn't.  

I think that both BioNTech and Emergent BioSolutions are stocks for investors to closely watch. However, my view is that Emergent BioSolutions is the better pick right now.

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.