Biotechs both big and small have rushed to develop potential treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Biogen (NASDAQ:BIIB) is an example of a big biotech working on an experimental COVID-19 treatment, while BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX) is one of the small biotechs developing a coronavirus vaccine.

Investors have rewarded BioNTech's efforts a lot more than they have Biogen's so far this year. BioNTech stock is up more than 80% while Biogen is down 12% year-to-date. But which of these coronavirus-focused biotech stocks is the better pick now?

Red model of coronavirus on top of $100 bills

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Biogen

In March, Biogen and Vir Biotechnology teamed up to develop and manufacture antibody therapies targeting COVID-19. Vir CEO George Scangos was very familiar with Biogen's expertise; he was Biogen's CEO from 2010 to 2016.

Biogen also is helping fight the coronavirus pandemic in another way. The biotech announced in April that it was forming a consortium with Broad Institute of MIT and Harver and Partners Healthcare to build a COVID-19 biobank. The goal of this biobank is to help scientists in their research on potential COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

Of course, COVID-19 isn't Biogen's primary focus. The company is a longtime leader in multiple sclerosis (MS). Nearly 75% of Biogen's total revenue in 2019 was generated by its MS franchise, with Tecfidera accounting for more than half of that amount. But Biogen's MS dominance could be in jeopardy. The biotech recently lost a lawsuit over a key patent for Tecfidera

Biogen does have other growth drivers, though. Sales for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) drug Spinraza continue to climb. The company's biosimilars are also picking up momentum. 

And Biogen just might have a game-changer on the way. The company plans to file for FDA approval of aducanumab in treating Alzheimer's disease in the third quarter of 2020. If approved, analysts think aducanumab could achieve peak annual sales of $10 billion or more. 

The biotech's pipeline also includes five other late-stage programs and 12 programs in phase 2 testing. Two especially promising candidates are amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) drug tofersen and MS drug opicinumab.

The case for BioNTech

March was a busy month for BioNTech. The German biotech announced that it had quickly developed a messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccine candidate. It also forged partnerships with Chinese drugmaker Fosun Pharma and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) to advance the experimental vaccine through clinical testing and potential commercialization.

BioNTech and Pfizer began early stage clinical trials of four variations of COVID-19 vaccine candidates in Germany and the U.S. in April. The companies expect to report preliminary results from the studies in July. You can definitely count BioNTech and Pfizer as leaders in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine: Their program was one of only five selected by the Trump administration to receive substantial federal support. 

What about BioNTech's prospects outside of COVID-19? The biotech has 10 oncology programs in 11 different clinical trials that are currently in progress. 

BioNTech's lead pipeline candidate is BNT122, an mRNA therapy being developed in partnership with Roche. The biotech expects to report interim data from a phase 2 study of BNT122 as a first-line treatment for melanoma next year. It also plans to begin two phase 2 studies of the drug in combination with Roche's Tecentriq targeting non-small cell lung cancer in the second half of this year. 

The company's other pipeline candidates are in early stage testing. However, BioNTech plans to begin a phase 2 study for BNT113 in head and neck cancer later this year. Two of its early stage programs have outside partners. Sanofi is working with BioNTech on mRNA immunotherapy BNT131, while Genmab is partnering with the biotech on checkpoint immunomodulator BNT311.

Better coronavirus stock

On an overall basis, Biogen might seem to be the better pick. It's already profitable. It has a very promising pipeline candidate with aducanumab. However, my concern is that Biogen has a lot riding on FDA approval of its Alzheimer's disease drug, especially with the patent loss for Tecfidera. 

I think that BioNTech is the clear winner between these two stocks based strictly on the potential for their respective coronavirus efforts. Although it's still early, I suspect that BioNTech and Pfizer will be winners with their mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

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.