The pharmaceutical company Merck announced on October 1 that its new oral antiviral medication reduced by about 50 percent the risk of hospitalization and death in people with mild or moderate cases of COVID-19, and that it would seek emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its use in the US.
The new drug’s generic name: molnupiravir.
Multisyllabic pharmaceutical names are of course nothing new. What’s unusual is molnupiravir’s origin, and the fact that Merck has publicly discussed the naming story.
Dean Li, Merck’s head of research and development, told the medical publication Stat News:
“Our prediction from our in vitro studies and now with this data is that molnupiravir is named after the right — you know, it’s named after Thor’s hammer [Mjollnir], this is a hammer against SARS-CoV-2 regardless of the variant.”
“The mighty Thor cannot reach his enchanged hammer! Is this to be Loki’s final victory???”: Marvel Comics
Usually spelled Mjolnir or Mjölnir and pronouncedˈMYAWL-nir, the magical hammer is an element in the legends of the Norse gods, used “both as a devastating weapon and as a divine instrument to provide blessings.” (Wikipedia) The story was popularized in a Marvel Comics series that debuted in Journey into Mystery #83 (August 1962).
The etymology of Mjolnir is obscure, but may indicate a relationship with Slavonic and Prussian words meaning “lightning.” (In Latvian, milna is “hammer of the thunder god.”) For a more detailed discussion, see this Word Reference Forum thread.
By simplifying and recombining “Mjolnir” to coin “molnupiravir,” Merck has done several clever things.
First, it has created a prefix that conforms to FDA rules that stipulate a drug prefix must have two syllables. (The -vir suffix reveals that it’s an antiviral.)
Second, even if you knew nothing about the name’s inspiration, you might see the mol syllable as representing “molecule” (science-y!) and the nu syllable as suggesting “new” (innovation-y!).
Finally, by making the naming story public, Merck is appealing to at least two demographics that might not respond to conventional COVID messages: comics fans and Old Norse nerds.
In the past, drug-name stories have been company secrets. COVID seems to be causing a break with that tradition. The Pfizer vaccine, Comirnaty, comes with a somewhat labored explanation of its derivation (community + immunity + mRNA). And the name of the Moderna vaccine, Spikevax, is so transparent it’s almost colloquial.
Pfizer: We've called it Comirnaty, because it provides immunity for the community.— Alexander Gaffney (@AlecGaffney) October 1, 2021
Merck: WE'VE NAMED IT AFTER THE MYTHICAL BATTLE HAMMER MJOLLNIR BECAUSE WE'RE GOING TO HIT THE VIRUS IN ITS SPIKEY, STUPID FACE. https://t.co/cPRxFX84VG
(Hat tip: Amy Reynaldo)