No cure for pharma naming: Review of COVID vaccine brand names

By Catchword

October 25, 2021

We can all agree that it’s long past time for COVID-19 to call it quits, but the FDA’s full approval of Comirnaty (the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine) reminded us that we do often disagree on what makes a great name. Spikevax, Moderna’s COVID vaccine and Pfizer’s biggest competitor, may be neck and neck with Comirnaty in terms of preventing COVID, but it’s certainly the winner in the brand name contest.

We at Catchword know well that pharmaceutical naming isn’t easy. A brand name has to pass stringent FDA requirements, or those of its international counterparts, and be available as a trademark. (Note that drugs actually have three names: a chemical name, an international non-proprietary name, or generic name, and a brand, or trade, name. The brand name is the tricky one.)

We truly empathize with all the hurdles to developing a drug’s brand name. Here are some of the most important of the FDA’s restrictions:

  • can’t use any part of the generic drug name
  • can’t reference inactive ingredients
  • can’t reference only some of its active ingredients (must be all or none)
  • can’t overpromise (Curall is a no go)
  • can’t suggest a particular way to take the drug or dosage form (because that could change)
  • can’t include numbers (because people might think that the number indicates dosage)
  • can’t sound or look like another drug or drug ingredient (current or discontinued)

But could the folks who came up with Comirnaty have done a better job? We think so.

To start with, Comirnaty is long, cumbersome, and difficult to pronounce. It’s a mashed-up mouthful of sounds, and as our co-founder Laurel Sutton told Morning Brew, it’s “a ‘naming company name,’” that does not have much going for it outside of meeting the tough FDA and trademark requirements. How does a person guess which syllable to emphasize with so many sounds smushed together? As Jimmy Fallon put it, the name “sounds more like a drunk person trying to say ‘community.’” Twitter users also roasted the name extensively.

OK, clearly Comirnaty has many flaws. Are there any pros? Kind of.

Although Comirnaty does call to mind the idea of a community coming together for immunity, too many messages are crammed into one word (a common misstep in naming). The company’s release states the name “represents a combination of the terms COVID-19, mRNA, community and immunity.” All of these ideas are important individually, but they don’t work together, particularly mRNA, which is a truly awkward grouping of letters. As Fierce Pharma reported, “The new brand name for Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty mashes up community, immunity, mRNA and COVID—pretty much everything that could fit into the moniker…” (We’d say jam in, unless you think a clown car’s a nice fit.)

 

Covuity, one of the alternatives that had been considered, would’ve been a better choice. It’s easier to spell and pronounce. It better recalls COVID-19 with its initial Cov, while retaining the nods to community and immunity. Plus the suggestion of coview is quite aspirational—seeing the future together. We don’t know why this one didn’t make the cut, but it’s a shame.

 

What about the Moderna vaccine name?

Spikevax, the trade name of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, has a lot more going for it from the get-go. Most importantly, it’s easier to pronounce, spell, and remember, and its meaning and tone are much more on brand.

The word spike suggests what it is in several subtle and effective ways: the vaccine helps prevent a spike in cases; the coronavirus itself has spikes; and spike also means to block or destroy. The repetition of the hard “k” sounds (from the k and x) in the name give it a strong, tough personality—exactly what you need to defeat a global pandemic. Spike is even a fairly common nickname for a tough guy or tough dog.

Image by hamperium

Spike’s association with sports furthers this persona: you spike a volleyball or football, you wear spikes in track and mountain climbing, you might spike an opponent with your cleats. Vax, as common slang for vaccine, reinforces the human, real-world, even street smart tone, which really makes the name stand out from the typical pharma designation.

Still, Spikevax does have some drawbacks. Spiking a drink is not a great association for a drug, and spiking someone is quite violent. It also suggests the injection itself in a pretty harsh way (spike was used as slang for injecting illegal drugs back in the day, notably by Lou Reed in the song “Heroin”). Many people are afraid of needles or at least don’t want to be reminded of the physical aspect of vaccination (near-universal use lately by the media of the British term jab, aside). And vax, though informal, is mostly used by anti-vaxxers. You don’t hear people saying, “I’m pro-vax.”

That “ks” sound at the end of the second syllable is a little hard to get your mouth around after the first “k” sound. (Spikevac would be easier to say, but then you might try to clean your floor with it.) Note that the first “k” sound stops the flow of the word, causing two evenly stressed syllables, which isn’t a natural cadence in many languages. But that percussiveness and the little pause it necessitates ultimately add to the weight of the word.

 

Also Rans: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and Unpronounceable)

Although Comirnaty and Spikevax are the two main vaccines in use here in the US, there are half a dozen others around the world.

China, Russia, and India have created user-friendly names for their vaccines, and the manufacturers have filed for US trademark. Why can’t Comirnaty be more like them? The naming rules in these countries are different from the FDA’s. We assume that Pfizer determined such names would be unlikely to gain FDA approval.

CoronaVac (from China’s Sinovac). It’s a great name if there’s only one vaccine available, which might be the case in China, because it says exactly what it is. Note that very descriptive names aren’t generally trademarkable in the US.

Russia’s vaccine is called Sputnik V, and we gotta say the name’s pretty awesome. It recalls Russia’s position as first to reach the stars. (Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite, and this vaccine was the world’s first registered combination vector COVID-19 vaccine.) The V suggests vaccine and victory and also is a roman numeral, reinforcing the idea of a moonshot. The name does have a chance to clear the US trademark hurdle, but FDA approval of the name seems quite unlikely given that the V can be read as a number.

Covishield (India’s version of the AstraZeneca vaccine). Solid meaning and pronunciation. Note that what looks like an unrelated company has filed an application for the mark for a coronovirus treatment (not a vaccine). Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot going on with COVI- names and US trademark.

Covaxin (another vaccine from India, the only one to be developed in that country). Again, the meaning and pronunciation are clear, and it isn’t too long or ugly. Note that this name could suggest the product is sponsored by COVAX (the worldwide intitiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines directed by the World Health Organization and two international vaccination nonprofits), which it absolutely is not.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine doesn’t have a trade name yet, and is formally still called Janssen COVID-19 vaccine (because it was developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the Belgium-based subsidiary of J&J). However, the company has filed for trademarks for Jcovden, Jcovav, Evcoyan, Jycovson, Jcovsen, Jycovden, as well as Rezymnav, Rezmyden, Fampelsen, Aqcovsen, Abfivden, and Ovcinden. Ouch. Hard to pick a winner there.

Vaxzevria, the European brand name for AstraZeneca’s vaccine, is hard to pronounce and too long. Plus, it’s just plain ugly. Although Vax makes it clear that this is a vaccine, zevria at first look doesn’t say much. Brand Institute (which also developed the names Comirnaty and Spikevax) stated in its release that the name means “vaccine for everyone” and noted that “every village and every town” was an important theme during name development. Every is definitely suggested, and maybe everywhere, but everyone is a stretch. Also the name would be much easier to spell without the z: Vaxevria.

Vidprevtyn is the trade name for Sanofi Pasteur’s vaccine, another European offering. It’s perhaps the most unpronounceable, long, and ugly, a prime example of pharma naming gobbledy gook. The name tries to recall COVID-19 with vid and prevention with prev, but vid more strongly suggests video or visual, which is a complete misdirect.

OK, so there are a bunch of vaccine names, and some are super weird, some are descriptive, and one is a fun nod to the history of space exploration.

Spikevax is decidedly the best of the US vaccine names. But do these brand names even matter? Will Comirnaty’s awkwardness affect its reputation or sales? As Laurel put it in a recent interview with New York’s PIX11 TV, ultimately for what it needs to do the name is “fine and perfectly serviceable. And people are going to call it the Pfizer vaccine anyway.”

Exactly. Unlike drugs that treat disease, for vaccines the customers are medical professionals, not the folks receiving them. (Don’t expect to see commercials with Grandpa happily playing catch with the kiddos after receiving his Comirnaty shot.) And, most importantly, all the vaccines have been known by the manufacturer’s name, not a brand name, for nearly a year. Most of the public and media won’t ever make the switch.

 

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