When I finally got my first jab of the Covid-19 vaccine, I thought I would make a little joke at the expense of the myriad conspiracy theories that have been going around on WhatsApp. So for the next couple of days, I told whoever I met (in socially distanced social settings) that I was feeling kinda weird… as if something was tingling inside me. I also turned on the Portable Wi-Fi hotspot on my phone and renamed the network to “Sinovac 5g 漢字 汉>字”. So wherever went, they would hear about me feeling off and inadvertently see ‘signals’ labelled Sinovac on their phones. I thought it would be a good laugh.
It did, but one of my friends (okay, more of an acquaintance) sort of sneered at me when he heard of my practical joke. “Sinovac? That’s even worse than Sinopharm, bro.” This guy is one of those very well-connected folk, and presumably he had Pfizer or Oxford instead. I shrugged it off by deflecting the taunt at another friend “At least it’s not Cansino like this guy here… sasta maal haha.”
I have done a little bit of work in the pharma sector, so I found this inadvertent brand power and desirability around specific vaccine variants interesting. As a thought experiment, let’s assume that they are, indeed, consciously marketed brands… carefully positioned by expert marketers through guerilla PR and subtle WOM campaigns with a meticulous focus on image-building. Where would we find parallels?
Pfizer: The iPhone of Vaccines: At the very top of the pyramid of desirability is Pfizer. These guys received a disproportionate amount of press because they were the first vaccine to be approved by the regulatory bodies. And as any marketer worth their salt will tell you, “first-of-its-kind” is branding gold. The Washington Post even picked up the fact that people in the UK started referring to it as ‘the posh one’. Like all world-changing brands, we got it later than the West… with the first doses arriving in late May through COVAX. Adding to its premium status is its exclusivity; you can’t get it unless you are either immunocompromised or going on an international trip to a country that accepts nothing less.
Where’s a khaypia when you need one?
Oxford AstraZenica: Blackberry of a few years ago: Pakistan also managed to get their hands on Oxford’s candidate for the war against Covid-19. I have to admit the distinctly European sounding name does check all the boxes for me. It feels… exotic and high-class. I mean, we all have this gora hangover, so we find it easy to believe that the Brits must have something good on their hands. But then the ‘UK strain’ kind of tainted that whole reputation for us. Add to the fact that this is the vaccine that allegedly causes blood clots, and we suddenly have mixed feelings about it. It sounds fancy, but still… doesn’t exactly work as seamlessly as it should. Sort of like the multiple reboots Blackberry did a few years ago with devices that harked back to their glory days, but there were always pesky issues, so they never became runaway successes.
Sputnik V: Ameeron ki vaccine: If you are rich, but not rich enough to be influential (more on this later), there was a small window where you could opt for the slightly shady sounding Sputnik V. While as a nation we don’t put much stock in Russian products, it sounded legit. If indeed Covid-19 was a massive conspiracy of Amreeka and its allies to cripple the world, the Russians sound like the right people to buy an antidote from. Never mind the fact that it has a lower efficacy rate… at least you could buy it with cold cash! Sort of like Samsung’s top-end phones. Sure, they explode sometimes but it’s an acceptable trade. For a little over 12k, you too could finally post a cliché “jabbed” selfie on your Instagram before your peasant friends could. We all lined up outside fancy hospitals to get our shots, but alas. The supplies were tight, even at the hiked price.
Sinopharm, Sinovac, and Cansino: China ka maal: If Pfizer is Apple, Sinopharm is OnePlus, Sinovac is Xiaomi, and Cansino is Oppo. They all get the job done, are easily available, but there is always the lingering thought of “chalay toh chaand tak, warna shaam tak". Once again, their perception value is determined by when they were introduced and when they ran out. Sinopharm, as the first to land (and subsequently run out) is considered to be technically at par, though not as sexy as its ‘Western’ counterparts. I have heard stories of people pulling the right kind of strings to get doses (along with administrators) delivered to their houses so that their families can be vaccinated in private. Those of us that couldn’t spring for this ended up getting Sinovac, which presumably has slightly lower efficacy but beggars can’t be choosers. It’s not as accepted by the international community but we are okay with the compromise. The Cansino folks are probably trying to rationalise that they got the ‘worst’ of the three but at least it’s single dose so they won’t have to bear another trip to a vaccination centre.
Pakvac: The Humble QMobile: There is news on the horizon of an indigenously manufactured vaccine, unfortunately named PakVac. Given we are just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of mass vaccination, this will probably be the one that drives volume inoculations. We might put little stock in the Chinese’s QC, but unfortunately we consider Pakistani-made stuff even worse. Yahan toh suee bhi nahin banti! But like QMobile, it’s going to be the most accessible and the most practical option out there. Sure, we will paint it with a cosmetic coat (probably patriotism) to mask our doubts about its reliability (which is not unlike seeing Kareena Kapoor in a QMobile ad). But at the end of the day, it’s going to be this unsexy brand that will get the job done for most Pakistanis.
There is a popular catchphrase in media these days (or is it a calculated campaign?) that goes “the best vaccine is the one in your arm”. I, for one, fully subscribe to this mindset. Pakvac or Pfizer, I’m just happy to have been vaccinated when so many in the world still haven’t had the opportunity. And since I have this forum available right now, I would like to publicly appreciate our government’s well-organised rollout of the vaccination campaign. Like all Pakistanis, my default state was of entrenched doubt regarding our capacity as a nation to tackle this challenge. But I’m pleasantly surprised, dare I say proud, to see that we’re on the right track. Right after this post is published, I’m going to turn off my Sinovac 5g 漢字 汉>字portable hotspot. Covid19 is no joking matter.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.