The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today granted full approval to the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech. The vaccine, which will be marketed as Comirnaty (generic name tozinameran), had been administered under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) since December 11, 2020; more than 200 million doses have been administered in the U.S. since that date.
The Comirnaty name didn’t just appear out of the blue today. I mentioned it in a May 2021 column on vaccination terminology and vaccine names. And Fierce Pharma reported on it back in December 2020, interviewing Scott Piergrossi, president of operations and communications at Brand Institute, the pharma-naming agency that developed the name for Pfizer-BioNTech. “The name is coined from Covid-19 immunity, and then embeds the mRNA in the middle, which is the platform technology, and as a whole the name is meant to evoke the word community,” Piergrossi told Fierce Pharma:
The goal in naming drugs is to overlap ideas and layer meaning into a name, he said. In this case, the high-priority concepts the teams started with were COVID immunization and the mRNA technology. The clients themselves came up with community as an image and association they wanted to elicit, Piergrossi said.
So that’s the Co- prefix, followed by the mRNA in the middle, and ending with the -ty suffix, which nods to both community and immunity. Plus, community and immunity are conceptually mnemonic across the entire name.
“Identifying those word parts and plugging into the community concept really executed nicely at the end of the day,” Piergrossi said.
“Executed nicely” is … a stretch. That’s a lot of concepts stuffed, à la turducken, into an awkward portmanteau that requires a pronunciation guide (The FDA suggests koe mir' na tee, with the stress on the second syllable. Yes, I am aware this is not a true phonetic representation.) Even with the guide, people are likely to stumble over the name.
ERMAHGERD CERMERNERTER— John B (@antaeusrising) August 23, 2021
(It helps to be acquainted with the ERMAHGERD meme, which flourished c. 2012–2015.)
Except for the co- prefix, which can suggest coronavirus or “together,” the name’s various elements are not transparent. What’s more, -aty is much less familiar a suffix than -ity. And in some sans-serif typefaces, Comirnaty looks like “Comimaty.”
Spikevax—to date, the name is being used only in Europe—is made by Moderna, one of Pfizer’s competitors. (Moderna, by the way, is a good portmanteau: it’s constructed from modified and mRNA and looks, well, modern.) Whereas Comirnaty is a Franken-name, Spikevax consists of two recognizable parts. It’s fun to say and it gets your attention, because spike is not a neutral word. It can be negative (to spike a fever, to tear your skin on a spike) or positive (a football player may spike the ball in celebration after scoring a touchdown; a spike in volleyball is an unreturnable offensive move). Spike can be a nickname (Spike Lee, Spize Jonze, William “Spike” Pratt in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the bounty hunter Spike Spiegel in the forthcoming Netflix anime series Cowboy Bebop).
Fellow brand consultants Russ Meyer and Anthony Shore summed up the dual impact of spike.
Feels hostile, which is good as a weapon in your arsenal. Think of US missiles like Stinger or Harpoon, things one would not want to be on the receiving end of.— Anthony Shore (@operativewords) August 23, 2021
Amy Reynaldo sees the positive side.
That seals it. I definitely want my third dose to be Spikevax! My first two were Corminaty. Comirnaty?— fully vaxxed but still immunocompromised (@Amy_Rey) August 23, 2021
A Twitter follower with a private account pointed out some of Spikevax’s additional virtues: It's “tough and manly and cool,” and it “doesn't sound like science—it sounds like a bad ass.” All of those things are advantages in a society where some people call masks “face diapers” and don’t want to look like babies.
Tl; dr: Comirnaty drives a Volvo; Spikemax rides a Harley.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
* Pharma naming is really, really hard. (I tried it once, and that was enough.) If you think you can do better, you are probably wrong.
* When you have a large number of people who distrust science and authorities, a name that sounds like it was created by science-authority brain geniuses (that’s Comirnaty) is going to be viewed with skepticism and even hostility.
* Neither Comirnaty nor Spikevax will catch on unless they’re supported by massive PR and advertising campaigns. Will that happen? I don’t know.
And it'll just continue to be called the pfizer vaccine by everyone because ain't no one got time for that name.— Ken. (@haaveyoumetken) August 23, 2021
* Names that sound like they were created by committee (which is, alas, too many names) are never as successful as names with a strongly distinctive personality.
And finally: If full approval of Comirnaty means more people will get vaccinated, hooray for Comirnaty.