The end of the year is fast approaching. And for investors, several things are worth keeping an eye on between now and December. The presidential race is one example. The results of the November elections in the U.S. could affect the market -- positively or otherwise. Another race to pay attention to is the coronavirus vaccine race. For companies working on this project, notable progress toward an effective vaccine could generate substantial stock market gains. 

That's why Vaxart (NASDAQ:VXRT) and Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) are worth monitoring. These biotechs have already rewarded many investors this year, but there's still a long runway for growth. Depending on how their COVID-19 efforts evolve, Vaxart and Novavax could soar even more before the curtain closes on 2020. Let's take a closer look at these companies and figure out whether they are worth investing in today. 

VXRT Chart

VXRT data by YCharts

Vaxart: An oral vaccine specialist 

Vaxart focuses on developing vaccines administered orally rather than via injection. The former approach boasts advantages over the latter. Oral vaccines are significantly easier to store and transport. These factors are particularly important during a pandemic, when the focus is on delivering the vaccine as quickly as possible. Vaxart's experimental COVID-19 vaccine is of the same variety. On Sept. 14, the company announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had given it the green light to start a phase 1 clinical study for its candidate. Vaxart's stock vaulted higher on the news.

The biotech said it would enroll healthy participants between the ages of 18 and 55 for the trial starting in late September. This study will primarily test the safety and reactogenicity (the amount that causes expected side effects) of two doses of the vaccine. Once Vaxart formally announces it has started the trial, expect the company's stock to get a boost. Vaxart is also awaiting efficacy data from a study of its experimental coronavirus vaccine candidate on hamsters.

These results should come in this month. If they are positive, they could give the company's shares another lift. Vaxart has other pipeline candidates. The company is developing a norovirus vaccine and a flu vaccine, but both are still in their early testing phases.

Man looking into crystal ball with upward pointing graph inside

Image source: Getty Images.

Novavax: A leader in the coronavirus vaccine hunt

Novavax is ahead of Vaxart in the COVID-19 race. The biotech is running the phase 2 portion of a phase 1/2 trial for its candidate, NVX-CoV2373. The company announced the initiation of this trial on Aug. 24. It will enroll up to 1,500 participants and will test the safety and immunogenicity (the ability to trigger an immune response in the body) of its candidate. With preliminary data from this trial coming in the fourth quarter, Novavax's shares could jump once they are announced, provided they are positive.

Novavax began a phase 3 study in the U.K. in September. This study will enroll up to 10,000 participants and test the vaccine's efficacy, safety, and immunogenicity. Of note, Novavax landed $1.6 billion in funding from the U.S. government, which will acquire 100 million doses of NVX-CoV2373, pending regulatory approval. Elsewhere, the U.K. government plans on purchasing 60 million doses of the vaccine.

Novavax's most advanced candidate is NanoFlu, a flu vaccine for patients 65 years of age or older. Following positive results from a phase 3 clinical trial for NanoFlu -- which the biotech announced in March -- Novavax will submit this candidate to the FDA for review. However, it isn't clear when the company will do so. Once it does, the news could be yet another catalyst for more stock market gains. Novavax sees a $2 billion opportunity for NanoFlu in the U.S. alone. For a company with no products on the market, both its COVID-19 and NanoFlu vaccines could turn out to be highly lucrative opportunities. 

Are they buys?

For those interested in short--term gains, Vaxart may be the better option. With a significantly smaller market cap ($754.58 million versus $6.74 billion) and several potential catalysts on the way, enthusiastic investors could bid up shares of Vaxart before now and December. However, focusing on short-term gains is risky. Sure, Vaxart could score big between now and Dec. 31. But any bad news regarding its COVID-19 effort will send its stock crashing down. Novavax's stock would also plunge if its coronavirus-related program falls short.

But Novavax is currently ahead of Vaxart in the COVID-19 race, and its NanoFlu vaccine could earn regulatory approval within a year or so. Vaxart is nowhere near launching a product on the market. Novavax has a better cash position, too. The biotech had $609.5 million in cash and cash equivalents as of June 30, compared to $44.4 million for Vaxart. For long-term investors, Novavax looks like the better biotech stock to buy. 

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.