It's a great time to be a small biotech focused on fighting COVID-19. Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) stock has skyrocketed more than 600% higher so far this year. Shares of Sorrento Therapeutics (NASDAQ:SRNE) have more than doubled.

Investors hoping to make tremendous profits from potential COVID-19 therapies and vaccines likely have both Inovio and Sorrento on their radar screens. But which of these coronavirus-focused biotechs is the better pick?

Healthcare professional holding a syringe and vaccine bottle

Image source: Getty Images.

Comparing their COVID-19 programs

Inovio began a phase 1 clinical study evaluating COVID-19 vaccine candidate INO-4800 in April. The company reported preliminary results from the study in June. Inovio stated that 94% of participants in the study "demonstrated overall immune responses" six weeks after receiving two doses of INO-4800.

However, the company didn't provide any details about the levels of neutralizing antibodies in the study's participants. This raised questions about the potential efficacy of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Still, though, Inovio expects to advance INO-4800 to phase 2/3 testing this summer pending regulatory clearance for the clinical trial.

Sorrento isn't nearly as far along with its COVID-19 program. The biotech doesn't have any candidates that have moved beyond preclinical testing yet. But what Sorrento lacks in clinical advancement, it just might make up in quantity.

The company's pipeline includes at least three COVID-19 programs. Two of these, COVI-GUARD and COVI-SHIELD, are antibody therapies targeting SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Sorrento CEO Henry Ji even referred to COVI-GUARD as a "cure" for COVID-19 in a TV interview in May. The third program, COVIDTRAP, also completely inhibited infection by SARS-CoV-2 in preclinical testing. In addition, Sorrento recently announced that it has selected a coronavirus vaccine candidate.

The rest of the story

Neither company focuses entirely on COVID-19. But Inovio's pipeline includes several infectious-disease candidates. The biotech has a couple of programs in phase 2 testing targeting HIV and MERS-CoV (which, like SARS-CoV-2, is a member of the coronavirus family). It's also evaluating DNA vaccines in early-stage clinical trials for Ebola, Lassa fever, and Zika.

Inovio's lead candidate, VGX-3100, targets various types of precancerous conditions caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). VGX-3100 is in a phase 3 study for treating cervical dysplasia. The biotech is also conducting phase 2 studies of the drug in treating anal dysplasia and vulvar dysplasia.

In addition to VGX-3100, Inovio has two other HPV therapies in phase 2 testing. INO-3107 targets recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, a disease where benign tumors grow in the respiratory tract. AstraZeneca licensed MEDI0457 and is studying the experimental drug in treating several types of HPV-caused cancers, including head and neck cancer.

Inovio's pipeline also features a couple of non-HPV immunotherapies. The company is partnering with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals to evaluate INO-5401 in treating glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. INO-5051 is in a phase 2 study targeting prostate cancer.

Sorrento's lead candidate, resiniferatoxin (RTX), is being tested in two phase 2 studies targeting pain in terminal cancer and pain associated with moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis. The biotech also has three early-stage cancer immunotherapies.

What about the financial positions of each company? Neither Inovio nor Sorrento is profitable yet. Inovio claims a bigger cash stockpile to fund operations, though. At the end of March, the company's cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments totaled $270 million. Sorrento's cash position stood below $22 million at the end of its first quarter.

Better coronavirus stock

Which of these coronavirus-focused biotech stocks is the better bet? Of the two, I think Inovio is the clear winner. Its COVID-19 program is farther along in clinical development than Sorrento's programs are. Inovio has a broader pipeline than Sorrento does. It also claims a stronger financial position.

But my view is also that neither of these stocks is a great pick to buy right now. There are still too many risks for their respective pipeline candidates -- and too many other stocks that offer more attractive risk-reward profiles.