Day 6

The Pfizer vaccine's new name is Comirnaty. Experts break down why it sounds so strange

Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine has a new name: Comirnaty. If your brain starts to melt a little when you try to figure out how it's pronounced, don't worry. Experts say there are valid, linguistic reasons why the word sounds so strange.

'Going to be quite hard for people to switch into using the brand names' says UBC prof Heidi Tworek

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Comirnaty Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Parc des Expositions in Angers, France on April 13, 2021. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

When Lisa Davidson first learned of Pfizer-BioNTech's brand name for their COVID-19 vaccine, she was confused about the word's pronunciation — like many others around the world.

Dubbed "Comirnaty," the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine's new name is intended to be a mash-up of community, immunity, COVID-19, as well as mRNA, according to Davidson, professor and chair of linguistics at New York University. 

"I would say that my first feeling was confusion," said Davidson.

The new brand name was unveiled on Monday, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted the COVID-19 vaccine's emergency-use status and granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech

As a result, the pharmaceutical companies behind the drug were also given permission to begin formally marketing the medication under the Comirnaty name. 

Now that she's had some time to say the name out loud, Davidson says Comirnaty has grown on her, but asserts there are "a few aspects of that word" that make it unusual — especially the fact that it isn't immediately similar to other words in English. 

"One thing that makes a word a good word or acceptable word of a language is how similar it is to other existing words in the language," Davidson told Day 6.

Vials with Pfizer/BioNTech's Comirnaty vaccine are pictured at Allergopharma's production facilities in Reinbek near Hamburg, Germany. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

"I think that Comirnaty is in some ways similar to other words," she said. Notably, Comirnaty is quite close to community, and it bears a resemblance to immunity, maternity, paternity and even modernity. 

"But in other ways, it's not that similar to other words in English."

The only English word that she was able to think of that had the "mern" phonetic sequence was the name "Myrna" — a name that peaked in popularity around 1938, according to the U.S. social security database. 

Davidson pointed out that the stress on the name's second syllable, according to the word's pronunciation guide, added another layer of confusion.

According to the FDA, Comirnaty is supposed to be pronounced "koe-mir'-na-tee."

"So having that 'oh' before the rest of the word, when the stress is on the 'mern' part … those are the things that make this not very similar to existing English words," Davidson said. 

"And that's the crucial thing. The less similar it is to existing words of the language, the less likely people are going to accept it."

Why give it a new name in the first place? 

Regardless of the new name's effectiveness, Heidi Tworek says there are three key reasons why drugs or vaccines even have brand names in the first place. 

The first is for trademarking reasons, and the second is to ensure anyone ordering the vaccine doesn't accidentally receive the wrong medication.

"And then thirdly, in places where you can market drugs and vaccines direct to consumers, like in the U.S., the idea is that you'll have a name that somehow reflects what this product is, in some way," Tworek, an assistant professor of health and public policy at the University of British Columbia, told Day 6

"We see that in the way that the branding institute that tried to name Comirnaty tried to combine all of these different ideas together." 

Spikevax, the brand name for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency, keeps things simpler, referencing the fact that it contains messenger RNA (mRNA) that allows the body's immune system to develop protections against COVID-19.

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Tworek acknowledged that the new name is "a little bit hard for us to pronounce and remember," and cautioned that potential risks could also come with an unpopular vaccine name.

"Ideally, if we choose a vaccine name, it will hopefully bolster people's confidence in the vaccine itself," she said. "[An unpopular name] might make people who are already feeling hesitant, or somehow skeptical, even more skeptical or hesitant." 

At the same time, Tworek said there is some risk of confusion for some people, "because they've got to remember that Comirnaty is actually what was previously called the Pfizer vaccine."

Still, she suspects it's going to be difficult for people to switch to the new Comirnaty name.

"Given that we've spent so many months talking about the vaccines as the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, and AstraZenca vaccines, it's going to be quite hard for people to switch into using the brand names," she said.

Though Tworek said people were quick to begin referring to COVID-19's variants as "the alpha variant or the delta variant," she said that people will likely continue referring to the vaccines by the now-familiar manufacturers' names.

"On the other hand, the variant story could certainly be the case as well and prove me wrong." 


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Spikevax, the brand name for the Moderna COVID-19, vaccine contains a coronavirus spike protein. In fact, both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines contain messenger RNA (mRNA) that teaches the body to produce spike proteins to build an immune response against COVID-19. Neither the Moderna nor the Pfizer vaccine contains the virus itself.
    Sep 13, 2021 5:53 PM ET

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