The vaccine rollout has been well-underway in the UK since Margaret Keenan was the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 jab in December 2020, a week before her 91st birthday. It marked the start of what Health Secretary Matt Hancock called “the fightback against our common enemy, the coronavirus”. In the typical jingoistic fashion that has become a feature of the British Government’s framing of the pandemic, he dubbed it “V-Day”. The second dose of the first 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine was administered to William Shakespeare, the namesake of the most important playwright in the English language. Whether it was coincidental, or another media spin we will never know, but the excitement of finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel was palpable. At least on social media.
As a healthcare professional I was listed as category 2 and I started the frantic search for the vaccine that had my name on it. Benign envy plays a role in consumer buying decisions and in this context it is also about competing for social status. Envy is the painful feeling that one gets when you covet something than someone possesses, or you become aware of their good fortune. Seeing on Facebook how my colleagues one after the other were getting vaccinated, I realised that I was suffering from ‘vaccine envy’, the feeling of resentment that you get when other people are vaccinated before you. The Germans even have a word for it ‘impfneid’.
I finally got my first shot at the end of January and I was relieved to find out that I was given the Pfizer and not the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, for no reason whatsoever other than the similar perception I have that certain German brands of white goods are better than British ones. I later received a text from a friend “Got Oxford one, trying not to be disappointed!”. Another friend who could potentially be seen as a conspiracy theorist was convinced that the Pfizer vaccine, which was the “expensive one”, was given to “posh people in posh areas” while the Oxford vaccine was given to “the poor”. My partner, who always has low expectations, predicted he would get AstraZeneca, in his words “the shit one”, which he did!
The Oxford/AstraZeneca, which is a perfectly safe and efficacious vaccine, has had terrible press in recent days as it has been associated with blood clots. The company was also recently accused by a US agency of cherry-picking data which initially showed it to be less efficacious than the others. I was interested in the emotional responses to the two vaccine options in the UK from the people around me. As more people were vaccinated, the usual British ‘small talk’ about the weather seemed to have been replaced with ‘vaccine small talk’ and the invariable question “which one did you get?”. As if it was a consumer choice, people seemed to be engaging in patterns of consumer behaviour, demonstrating both envy and ‘vaccine snobbery’, the perception that one brand is superior to another one.
On an international level, the Oxford/AstraZeneca was at first derided by Macron and defended by Merkel as both their nations have seen a rise in vaccine hesitancy, but particularly a mistrust of the Oxford/AstraZeneca one. The slow roll out of the vaccine in the EU and Germany in particular has come at a big political cost for Merkel. The renewed lockdown and third wave of infections took vaccine envy to an international level when The Sun newspaper gloated how Germany was falling behind in the vaccine rollout and that the UK was the envy of the world. This has been of great political advantage to the British government which has capitalised on what could be dubbed the EU’s ‘vaccine comeuppance’, and has glossed over the fact that the UK has suffered the worst death toll and economic fallout in Europe.
Indeed, when speaking to people about the Oxford/AstraZeneca it was clear that despite the bad press many saw it as the ‘patriotic vaccine’. One friend claimed that people were asking for it when she went to get hers. Despite the bad press, the Oxford/AstraZeneca has some advantages both practically and ethically. It is non-profit, it was created by a team of mostly female scientists, and it can be stored in a household fridge, while the Pfizer vaccine needs -80C refrigeration. The different storage demands may explain how it was distributed across the UK. The Oxford/AstraZeneca has also been allocated to developing countries in large quantities through the COVAX programme, to be distributed as part of the effort to allow equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. It remains to be seen if the bad press received by Oxford/AstraZeneca will contribute to vaccine hesitancy world-wide, or indeed ‘vaccine snobbery’.
Vaccine nationalism, and the issues where national egos are put before the protection of lives aside, I was interested in why people around me seemed to be displaying ‘vaccine snobbery’. What better place to do a quick survey of your friends’ opinions than Facebook.
Some vaccines seem to have higher status than others based on things such as reported efficacy and price. One is perceived as a Porsche while the other is the Reliant Robin.
I’d like to know how you based your judgement on the vaccine you got and why?
Their responses were interesting and varied. Some thought the Pfizer was “fancier and more scientific” and the fact that it was new technology did not concern them in the slightest. Another friend with a degree in biochemistry preferred the Oxford/AstraZeneca because it seemed more “robust” and “stable” than the mRNA vaccines Pfizer and Moderna. The fact that they can only be stored at “ultra-low temperatures” was deemed to make them more likely to spoil and be ineffective. Other friends agreed that in their social media networks the Oxford/ AstraZeneca was perceived as “better”, but we could all agree that most people were getting their information from the UofFB (University of Facebook). A friend who is also a medical anthropologist thought the Oxford/ AstraZeneca had lower status than Pfizer and Moderna due to the reporting of its adverse effects and that it was simply seen as the “local” vaccine.
In the UK since Brexit there is a clear split in the public debate about British ingenuity and entrepreneurship. On the one hand people tend to believe it is overrated, while others are proud of all things British. The split is usually over political fault lines and where people stand in their opinions about the EU and Brexit. It is not surprising that some people will be rolling their sleeves up demanding they be injected with the Oxford/ AstraZeneca as an act of patriotism. A friend had preference to the Oxford/ AstraZeneca because it was “non-
profit and aimed to be shared with the developing world”. However, she had heard that Pfizer had more protection against the new variants and would “quite like” to have one of each. Other friends were hesitant about the Oxford/ AstraZeneca but accepted it for the “greater good” and one felt “privileged and lucky to have it at all”.
My mother contributed with her observation that Pfizer is a known pharmaceutical brand name and that could be why people perceived it as “better”. She also thought the husband-and-wife team of scientists behind the vaccine lend a lot of credibility to it. Indeed, the press office at Pfizer must have been busy months before the vaccine was approved as photos and interviews of the couple appeared in the media, paving the way for our consumer-driven minds to absorb the subliminal messages about the superiority of their product.
It brought back memories from many years ago when I studied economics and learned about ‘positioning’ products in the marketplace – how pricing and branding is key to how consumers perceive a product’s value and effectiveness. An expensive face cream will be considered ‘better’ than a cheaper one by consumers, even if they are both exactly the same. Positioning a product is therefore key in what you want to communicate about that product to your market.
I believe that ‘Vaccine snobbery’ is nothing more than a reflection on how we respond to marketing and brands as consumers
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Maria Larrain is a practising osteopath and MPhil/ PhD student in medical anthropology. Her areas of interests are contemporary parenting culture, risk, gender and medicalisation. Her research project explores the issue of infant ‘tongue-tie’ and the medicalisation of breastfeeding