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Why was the Pfizer vaccine renamed?

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Aug 30, 2021 12:00:00 AM

Does the word “Comirnaty” mean anything to you? How about the words “Pfizer vaccine”?

If that last phrase rings a bell, then it turns out you know what “Comirnaty” is, too. Now approved by the FDA for people aged 16 and above, the Pfizer vaccine will be marketed under this…rather odd name.

Why is the Pfizer vaccine’s name changing?

This isn’t an unusual case, it turns out. Many vaccines take on a new name once they’ve gotten official approval. In fact, journalist Claire Wolters reports, other COVID vaccines have also adopted new monikers. AstraZeneca chose the tongue twister Vaxzevria, while Moderna opted for the far cooler, yet vaguely terrifying (or is that just me?) Spikevax.

Still, why change a vaccine’s name when what we’ve been calling it seems perfectly functional? Vaccine expert Dr. Jonathan Baktari believes that it comes down to specifics. “Pfizer vaccine” could, after all, describe any vaccine produced by Pfizer, so giving this particular vaccine a specific name may help avoid confusion in years to come.

And there’s something else: branding.

What does “Comirnaty” mean?

Both marketing and common sense dictate that in order to gain brand recognition, it’s important to have a catchy and meaningful product name. Pfizer worked with Brand Institute, an organization that defines itself as “the global leader in pharmaceutical and healthcare related name development” to come up with “Comirnaty”.

So, why is this the name they chose?

“Comirnaty” is a portmanteau of:


mRNA (mirna)

Community (ty)

How are people reacting to this name choice?

Pfizer may have consulted with branding experts to come up with their vaccine’s new official name, but many reactions in the media and on social media show that it seems a bit like a rebellious teen who decides to give themself a new, somewhat inexplicable moniker. The “It’s ‘Comirnaty’ now, Mom! This isn’t a phase!” vibes are strong…

Twitter abounded with tweets making fun of the name and even normally serious publications like Forbes couldn’t help themselves from getting in on the fun. In a delightfully snarky piece of reporting, senior contributor Bruce Y. Lee at one point writes: “So the name is supposed to make you think about the technology behind the vaccine, immunity, and community at the same time, rather than one manatee saying to another, ‘come on, manatee, let’s go party.’”

Then again, maybe the ridicule isn’t a totally bad thing. After all, it’s still spreading the word about the name change and in fact…creating brand awareness. …Although not necessarily the kind that Pfizer expected or wanted.

That said, regardless of how anyone feels about the name, the vaccine’s composition and prominent role hasn’t changed, so maybe it doesn’t matter very much in the end.

Personally, while single names usually seem easier to remember and use, I think most people will continue to call the vaccine by the name we came to know it by: that good old, boring handle, “the Pfizer vaccine” - at least for a long while.

In fact, the vaccine has apparently been officially called Comirnaty in Europe since December 2020, but as a resident of France who watches the French news, talks to French people, and recently made a visit to a French vaccination center, I can report that NO ONE is referring to it as anything other than le vaccin Pfizer.

Still, scoff as he (and we) might, Lee does stop laughing for a moment to point out that most drugs’ generic names aren’t easy to remember, pronounce, or figure out, either, come to think of it. And he can’t resist getting in another zinger, writing that the vaccine’s generic name, tozinameran, “sounds a little like a Europop one-hit-wonder group”.

At any rate, Pfizer and its fellow vaccine producers probably aren’t particularly bothered by our jokes. Call it what you want, Comirnaty will reportedly bring in $33.5 billion this year alone. We may not know it by its official brand name (yet?), but Comirnaty may become one of the best-selling medicines in history.

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