The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the trajectory for two small biotechs. Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO -6.18%) is enjoying its best stock performance in seven years thanks to investors' interest in its novel coronavirus vaccine program. VBI Vaccines (VBIV -3.02%) appears to be on track for its best year ever -- for the same reason.

But which of these coronavirus stocks is the better pick right now? Here's how Inovio and VBI compare.

Scientist holding syringe and vaccine bottle

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Inovio

There are currently 25 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in clinical testing across the world. Inovio's INO-4800 claims a spot among the elite group. And so far, the experimental coronavirus vaccine seems to have largely delivered as Inovio hoped it would.

Inovio reported positive interim results from a phase 1 study of INO-4800 on June 30, 2020. The biotech announced that 94% of the 40 participants in the clinical trial had overall immune responses at week six after receiving two doses of the experimental COVID-19 vaccine. 

More good news came on July 30. Inovio reported encouraging results from a preclinical challenge study. Rhesus macaques (a type of Asian monkey) were given INO-4800 then infected with a live SARS-CoV-2 virus. The monkeys demonstrated durable immune responses four months after vaccination. 

Inovio hopes to advance INO-4800 to a phase 2/3 study this summer. Meanwhile, the company's pipeline includes several other candidates that could have considerable potential. 

The biotech is evaluating its lead candidate, VGX-3100, in a phase 3 study for treating precancerous cervical dysplasia. This study is scheduled to wrap up in the first half of 2021. Inovio is also evaluating the experimental drug in a couple of phase 2 studies targeting precancerous anal and vulvar dysplasia.  

Inovio's pipeline includes five other candidates in phase 2 testing. AstraZeneca licensed MEDI0457 and is evaluating the experimental immunotherapy in treating several types of cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Inovio recently won FDA orphan drug designation for INO-3107, which targets HPV-caused recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. INO-5401 and INO-5151 target non-HPV-related cancer. Two vaccine candidates in phase 2 studies target HIV and MERS.  

In addition, Inovio has four candidates in phase 1 testing other than INO-4800. Three are experimental vaccines and one is an experimental antibody therapy targeting Zika.

The case for VBI Vaccines

VBI Vaccines is taking a different approach to fighting COVID-19. The biotech isn't targeting only SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. VBI is developing a vaccine candidate for preventing infections by multiple coronaviruses -- severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and SARS-CoV-2.

This pan-coronavirus vaccine program, VBI-2901, is currently in preclinical testing. VBI expects to use its preclinical data to select the best vaccine candidate(s) in the third quarter of this year. The biotech anticipates having clinical study materials available in the fourth quarter.

While VBI-2901 has attracted investors' interest, VBI already has one approved vaccine. Hepatitis B vaccine Sci-B-Vac is only approved for sale in Israel right now. However, VBI plans to file for regulatory approvals in the U.S., Canada, and Europe beginning later this year.

The company has another hep-B program as well. Experimental hepatitis B therapeutic VBI-2601 is currently in a phase 1b/2a clinical study. VBI expects to report initial data from the study in the second half of 2020.

VBI isn't only focused on hepatitis B. Its pipeline also includes cytomegalovirus vaccine candidate VBI-1501, which has completed phase 1 testing, and experimental immunotherapy VBI-1901. VBI plans to announce results from one arm of its phase 2a study of VBI-1901 later this year. 

Better coronavirus stock

I think that Inovio is the better coronavirus stock at this point. Its COVID-19 vaccine candidate is farther along in clinical testing than VBI's pan-coronavirus vaccine candidate is. Inovio also has a broader pipeline.

However, my view is that Inovio still isn't the best biotech stock to buy right now. There are some questions about the production of neutralizing antibodies with INO-4800. I'd prefer to see phase 2 results for the COVID-19 vaccine candidate before jumping aboard the Inovio train. But if those results are positive, I'd definitely reconsider my opinion.