Explosive growth potential. That's the big draw for the stocks of small biotechs with COVID-19 development programs. One successful coronavirus vaccine or therapy could translate to a lot of revenue in a relatively short period of time.

Investors seeking this explosive growth have flocked to both Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) and Sorrento Therapeutics (NASDAQ:SRNE). Both biotech stocks have soared, thanks to key developments with their respective COVID-19 programs. But which of these coronavirus stocks is the better pick?

Here's how Moderna and Sorrento stack up against each other. 

Physician holding a vaccine bottle and syringe

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Moderna

Moderna's mRNA-1273 is one of only two coronavirus vaccine candidates that have a reasonable chance of winning Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the end of this year. The company expects to have enough data to submit for EUA by Nov. 25, 2020.

So far, Moderna has lined up agreements with the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses of mRNA-1273 and with the Canadian government to supply 20 million doses of the experimental vaccine. The biotech is also in discussions with the European Commission and the Japanese government about potential supply deals.

Should mRNA-1273 achieve success, it could also bode well for Moderna's other pipeline candidates. The company believes that if its messenger RNA (mRNA) approach works with one disease, it should work with many other diseases.

Moderna's pipeline includes 12 other programs in clinical testing. Five of those are mRNA vaccines targeting other viruses. Another five candidates target cancer. In addition, the company is evaluating an experimental antibody against the Chikungunya virus in early-stage testing and is working with AstraZeneca on an experimental therapy targeting coronary artery disease.

Although Moderna isn't profitable yet, its financial position appears to be strong. The company ended the second quarter with $3.1 billion in cash, cash equivalents, and investments. That amount should enable Moderna to continue advancing its pipeline programs and ramp up manufacturing for mRNA-1273.

The case for Sorrento Therapeutics

Sorrento Therapeutics hopes to fight COVID-19 on multiple fronts. The FDA is reviewing the company's EUA filing for COVI-TRACK COVID-19 antibody test. Sorrento also hopes to secure an EUA for its COVI-TRACE COVID-19 diagnostic test.

The biotech's most advanced coronavirus program is abivertinib. Sorrento is evaluating the experimental drug in a phase 2 study for treating COVID-19 patients. The company also is developing several other experimental COVID-19 therapies, including STI-1499, which the FDA has cleared to advance into a phase 1 clinical study.

What about a coronavirus vaccine candidate? Sorrento checks off that box, too. The company selected T-VIVA-19 as its lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate after promising preclinical results.

Sorrento isn't just focused on COVID-19. Abivertinib also has potential as a treatment for non-small cell lung cancer. The company's pipeline includes several cancer immunotherapies and an experimental pain drug resiniferatoxin, which is in clinical development. Sorrento's majority-owned subsidiary Scilex also currently markets non-opioid pain-management product ZTlido and is evaluating an experimental sciatic treatment in late-stage testing.

Although sales of ZTlido are rising, Sorrento isn't anywhere close to generating a profit. The company reported cash and cash equivalents totaling $24.4 million as of June 30, 2020, and will likely need to raise more cash in the future.

Better coronavirus stock?

Sorrento's pipeline is loaded with COVID-19 candidates. It also has a small market cap of under $3 billion that could grow much higher if its programs are successful. But Sorrento faces significant risks that its candidates won't perform as well as expected.

I think Moderna is the better coronavirus stock. Yes, lofty growth expectations are already baked into Moderna's share price. However, the biotech should still have plenty of room to run if mRNA-1273 wins regulatory approvals or authorizations.

My view is that investors will place a much higher value on Moderna's pipeline if that happens. And I anticipate that mRNA-1273 could take an important first step by winning FDA EUA within the next few months.