On the Naming of Vaccines

Tagged: COVID / PharmaAndBiotech

Today I learned the commercial names of the COVID-19 vaccines. One of them is a real winner!

On the naming of cats…

No, this is not about TS Eliot’s poem on “The Naming of Cats”. If it were, every drug would have a secret name which only the drug itself would know.

Drug names

Just as Eliot said a cat must have 3 different names, in the absurd US system of drug nomenclature there are at least 4:

  • Chemical Name: A name derived from chemical nomenclature, sometimes a real jawbreaker that takes many lines to write down and is essentially unpronounceable. [1] I won’t even begin to think what the name of a complex mRNA drug with a lipid nanocapsule would be. Just… “complicated”.
  • Compound ID: A name given by the companies developing them, often called a “compound id”. Sometimes they even change the compound id, just to obfuscate and confuse the business intelligence gatering efforts of competitors.
    • The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is called BNT162b2 or PF-07302048, or sometimes both separated by a slash, depending on whether you want the BioNTech or Pfizer id. (Though why you should care, unless you work in one of those companies, is unclear.)
    • The Moderna vaccine is called mRNA-1273. See how clever they are with names?
      • The company’s main business is mRNA therapeutics, so the company works in “Mode RNA”.
      • The vaccine compound id often uses an abbreviation of the company’s name, which in this case is of course “mRNA”.
    • The J&J vaccine is JNC-78436735. The “JN” part is because it was developed by Janssen, their vaccine subsidiary. And yes, Johnson & Johnson has a subsidiary named Janssen because nothing real is ever allowed to be simple and straightforward.
    • The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is… nothing I particularly care about.
  • Generic Name: In the US, the FDA assigns a name that is deliberately not copyrighted, so anybody can use it. They’re generally sort of neutral sounding, designed so that it’s hard to mis-hear them and mistake them for another medication. One drug I worked on, a proteasome inhibitor for use in certain blood cancers, got called “bortezomib” because it was a boronate proteasome inhibitor. Nice. (Before that, it had compound ids PS-341, LDP-341, and MLN-341 as it changed owners.)
    • The Pfizer vaccine is designated “tozinameran”, for no particularly obvious reason. I guess it doesn’t sound like anything else, at least.
    • Similarly cryptically, the Moderna vaccine is known as “elasomeran”, a name beloved of nobody.
    • The J&J vaccine is known as Ad26.COV2.S, which sort of makes sense given that it uses an adenovirus known as Ad26 for its vector.
  • Trade Name: Companies being the capitalist entities that they are, they of course want a name they control with copyright, and that they can forbid anyone else from using. Usually they hire name consultants, who get out big books of Latin and Greek roots from which they construct candidate names. Most of them are abominations. Some of them are sort of ok: bortezomib is trade-named “Velcade” (high-velocity induction of apoptosis cascade, or something silly like that).

Trade Names for COVID-19 Vaccines

Spike, the vampire anti-hero from Buffy the Vampire Slayer DEC VAX superminicomputer, hero of the late 1970s We’ve speculated in the past about names for COVID-19 vaccines, here on this crummy little blog that nobody reads. But nobody listens to me about naming things, usually for good reason.

So Pfizer and Moderna have hired the relevant naming consultants, labored mightily, and given birth to… what?

Pfizer has embraced “Comirnaty”, which sounds like someone with a really bad accent trying to say “community”. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and give it a thumbs down.

Moderna, on the other hand… these guys are good. Given that it uses the viral spike protein to vaccinate you, they’ve called it…

SPIKEVAX!

That’s just… brilliant! It absolutely defies the conventional wisdom of drug naming. No deep roots in ficto-Latin or pseudo-Greek. Not even a vague attempt at sophistication. Just… “hey, we use the spike to vaccinate you”. I love it.

Hence, our celebratory pictures of Spike and a VAX. Surely this was their intended meaning, no? [2] I mean, it’s the obvious place to have gotten that name, right?

Now I want a Moderna booster, even though I got Pfizer originally. Just for the name.


Notes & References

1: I once had the rare good fortune back in the late 1990’s to do some consulting for CAS (Chemical Abstracts Services). They were using an AI technique called an expert system to derive standardized names from chemical structures. I had to move that program to a then-more-modern expert system tool. Very interesting and nice people.

2: Fair Warning: Do not attempt to disabuse me on this point. I treasure the memory of Buffy in my heart. (Well, actually more Willow. And Giles, for that matter. I dream of one day being as cool as Giles.)

Written Sat 2021-Sep-18

Gestae Commentaria


Ever since I started to work in pharma, I was wondering who comes up with the names and what goes on in their minds (and are they really able to pronounce words like Epcoritamab or Daratumumab?)

Also, I have the cool name :) -checked my electronic vaccination certificate and says SpikeVax (previously covid19 moderna). Looks like the government hijacked my phone to update the vaccine name :¦.

Weekend Editor, Sun 2021-Sep-19 17:30

Congrats on the cool name! And on the electronic vax certificate. Here in the primitive US, mine is paper. :-(


Weekend Editor, Sat 2021-Sep-18 21:56

Sure, that’s an alternative. But I treasure my memories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So “Spike” to me will always mean James Marsters portraying this character.

I admit it’s a niche taste…