Pfizer (PFE 0.10%) appears to be likely to be the first drugmaker, along with its partner BioNTech (BNTX -0.43%), to win U.S. emergency use authorization (EUA) for a coronavirus vaccine. AstraZeneca (AZN 2.68%), with plans to produce up to 3 billion doses next year, might distribute more doses of its COVID-19 vaccine globally than any other company.

Do these leading positions mean that Moderna (MRNA 1.90%) is playing second fiddle in the coronavirus vaccine race? Not for investors. Here are three key advantages that Moderna holds over both Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Researcher in personal protective equipment holding a vaccine vial with another researcher in the background

Image source: Getty Images.

1. No sharing required

Many of us were taught in kindergarten that it's good to share -- and our kindergarten teachers were right. In the biopharmaceutical world, though, sharing profits can translate to slower growth. Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca will share the rewards gained from their COVID vaccines.

Pfizer, as mentioned earlier, teamed up with BioNTech on coronavirus vaccine candidate BNT162b2. The big drugmaker forked over $72 million in cash to its partner, and bought a $113 million stake in the German biotech. BioNTech is also eligible to receive milestone payments of up to $563 million. The two companies didn't reveal how they're splitting revenue and profits on any sales of BNT162b2, but Pfizer certainly won't pocket all of the money the vaccine could make.

AstraZeneca partnered with the University of Oxford to develop and distribute experimental COVID-19 vaccine AZD1222. No financial details of the collaboration were announced. However, you can bet that Oxford will receive some level of royalties from any sales of the vaccine.

Meanwhile, Moderna has full ownership of COVID-19 vaccine candidate mRNA-1273, and doesn't have to share any potential revenue or profits from sales of the vaccine. Granted, Arbutus Biopharma owns the patent to lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology used in the past by Moderna. However, Moderna has publicly stated that mRNA-1273 doesn't use any technology covered by Arbutus' patent.

2. Platform possibilities

If AstraZeneca wins regulatory approvals for AZD1222, the company has no other vaccine candidates that use similar technology waiting in the wings. It's the same story for Pfizer. However, good news for Moderna's mRNA-1273 could bode well for the rest of the biotech's pipeline.

Moderna hopes to leverage commercial success for mRNA-1273 into a full-blown mRNA (messenger RNA) platform. In addition to mRNA-1273, the company's pipeline currently includes 12 other mRNA vaccines and therapies in clinical testing. Moderna thinks it could expand that number to as many as 50 clinical-stage programs if the anticipated big bucks from mRNA-1273 begin to pour in.

Believe it or not, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel thinks that the biotech could even become the biggest vaccine company in the world within the next four years. That view could be overly optimistic, but Moderna should grow at a much faster rate than AstraZeneca or Pfizer because of its platform possibilities.

3. Size

Last -- and least, in a literal sense -- is Moderna's size advantage over Pfizer and AstraZeneca. You might be thinking, "What size advantage?" After all, Pfizer's market cap tops $200 billion. AstraZeneca's market cap is close to $140 billion. Moderna is tiny in comparison, with a market cap in the ballpark of $50 billion. However, Moderna's smaller size is actually a big advantage.

It's not surprising at all that Moderna's stock gains so far in 2020 have been a lot better than the performances turned in by AstraZeneca and Pfizer. That's because positive developments for mRNA-1273 have moved the needle a lot more for Moderna than similar positive developments for AZD1222 and BNT162b2 have done for AstraZeneca and Pfizer, respectively.

Moderna still has a lot more room to run than either AstraZeneca or Pfizer. An additional $5 billion to $10 billion annually would be nice for these two big drugmakers, but wouldn't cause either of the two pharma stocks to skyrocket. On the other hand, that kind of revenue would likely light a fire beneath Moderna's share price.

We should soon know if mRNA-1273 will win EUA in the U.S. and regulatory approvals in other countries. If it does, Moderna stands to make billions of dollars in a short period. Its size, combined with its full ownership of its COVID vaccine and its platform possibilities, will almost certainly make Moderna a much bigger winner again in 2021 than AstraZeneca and Pfizer.