Health-care industry, not consumers, target of vaccine brand names

Experts say the renaming of COVID-19 vaccines is "business as usual" since the shots could not be branded until fully authorized by Health Canada, and their not-so-usual names are the result of pharmaceutical companies marketing to health institutions, not consumers.

The government on Thursday approved the brand names SpikeVax for the Moderna vaccine, Vaxzevria for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and Comirnaty for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

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Pfizer said the new name for its vaccine is meant to combine the terms COVID-19, mRNA (the technology used in the shot), immunity and community into a singular name.

"Although the vaccine’s brand name will be Comirnaty following this approval, Canada will continue to receive vials of the vaccine labeled with the name 'Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine' for the next several months," said Pfizer spokeswoman Christina Antoniou.

"Given the current ongoing pandemic, a transition to new labeling will occur at a later date."

Ryerson University associate professor Joanne McNeish said the procedure of naming the drug after full approval is standard for drug companies, but unorthodox for consumers during the pandemic since people were so in tune with the different kinds of vaccines.

She said the names, which don't exactly roll off your tongue, may be that way since the companies will be selling to our health-care system, not to consumers.

"Most people don't know the brand name or the company of their flu shot," said McNeish.

Before Thursday, she said, the vaccines didn't actually have a name at all, and the name that we knew was simply the company's title.

She compared it to laundry detergent: we call them Tide pods because of the brand, not Procter and Gamble pods because of the parent company.

"From (the pharmaceutical companies') point of view, this is business as usual, but it's unusual for us as users to be observing it, because this would normally all be done before it came to market," said McNeish.

However, she said putting a brand name on their product can be an expensive process with labelling and legal costs in the millions. McNeish said these companies wouldn't take the time to brand the product unless they believe that COVID-19 vaccines are going to be a part of our lives for a long time.

"There are a lot of costs that go into building a brand name, and I think these companies wouldn't do this if these vaccines were only going to be used for another year," said McNeish, adding the companies are trying to build long-term equity around the brand name.

"So what I would take from this is that they're going to be using this brand name for this drug for quite a while."

In the meantime, McNeish said she expects the companies' names will remain front and centre in the public sphere, and the brand names for each vaccine will only become more common over time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2021.

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