iBio Pharma (NYSEMKT:IBIO) and Vaxart (NASDAQ:VXRT) rank as two of the biggest winners so far this year among small-cap biotechs with coronavirus programs. Shares of iBio have skyrocketed more than 1,600% year to date, while Vaxart stock is up close to 2,500%.

Which of these coronavirus stocks is the better pick now? Here's how iBio and Vaxart stack up against each other.

Scientist wearing protective gear, holding up a hand against several coronaviruses

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for iBio

iBio announced in February that it was partnering with Beijing CC-Pharming to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. By March, the company had made significant progress in its efforts. It even filed for four provisional U.S. patent applications for its virus-like-particle platform technology and its adjuvant technology.

One key to iBio's rapid progress was and is the company's FastPharming manufacturing system. FastPharming uses plants as bioreactors to produce biological medicines and vaccines. Its advantages include much faster production compared to traditional methods, and easier scale-up for making large quantities.

iBio currently has two COVID-19 vaccine candidates in preclinical testing: IBIO-200 and IBIO-201. The company expects to be able to produce between 200 million and 700 million doses per year of IBIO-200. iBIO's FastPharming platform could also potentially help it win contract manufacturing deals to make other COVID-19 vaccines.

Several programs in clinical development rely on iBio's FastPharming technology, including early-stage vaccine candidates targeting H5N1 and H1N1 flu, anthrax, and malaria. iBio's own internal pipeline features one animal health program in clinical development: IBIO-400, an experimental vaccine for classical swine fever.

In addition, iBio is evaluating IBIO-100 in preclinical testing as a potential treatment for fibrotic disease. The experimental drug already received Orphan Drug Designation from the Food and Drug Administration for treating systemic scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disorder.

The case for Vaxart

Vaxart initiated its program to develop a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in late January. Less than two months later, the company signed a deal with Emergent BioSolutions to manufacture its experimental coronavirus vaccines.

By the end of March, Vaxart had five COVID-19 vaccine candidates in preclinical testing. The biotech announced positive preclinical results in April, with several of its COVID-19 vaccine candidates generating immune responses in animals after one dose.

The key differentiating factor for Vaxart's coronavirus vaccine candidate is that it's taken orally in tablet form. This offers potential advantages over injected vaccines, including more convenient administration and more cost-effective storage and transportation. In June, the company's COVID-19 vaccine candidate was selected as the only oral vaccine to be included in a nonhuman-primate challenge study funded by the U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed.

Vaxart has already achieved clinical success with another oral vaccine candidate. The company completed a phase 2 challenge study evaluating its oral H1N1 flu vaccine against Sanofi's Fluzone, with positive results. It also reported encouraging results from a phase 1 study of an oral norovirus vaccine candidate.

In addition to its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, Vaxart's pipeline includes three other oral vaccine candidates in preclinical testing. Johnson & Johnson is collaborating with the company on an oral flu vaccine candidate. Vaxart also has preclinical vaccine candidates for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human papillomavirus (HPV).

The better coronavirus stock

My view is that Vaxart gets the nod over iBio as the better coronavirus stock, for two reasons. First, its pipeline already includes clinical-stage candidates. Second, Vaxart's oral COVID-19 vaccine candidate stands out from the field of injectable vaccines and could attract more funding.

However, I think it's too early to buy either of these biotech stocks right now: The risks of failure are way too high. But both iBio and Vaxart have intriguing technology, and investors should keep these two small-cap stocks on their radar screens.