HUNGARY. The country has one of the highest death rates of COVID-19 globally.1 Hospitals are filled with ICU patients at some places outnumbering staff 5:1.2 Nurses and doctors struggle with physical burnout, infrastructural breakdown, and government crackdown. The shadow of Prime Minister Viktor Orban floats above the pandemic by obstructing statistical transparency and heavily controlling media outlets to paint the picture of effective pandemic response.3 Astoundingly two-thirds of Hungarians are unaware of the extent of destruction in their country.4 These numbers testify to the agnotological abilities of the forcefully centralized Hungarian media.
Hungary became an especially peculiar vaccine landscape in the European context. Vaccination willingness improved by scores since 2020, and the country has become a leader in administered vaccines in Europe.5 Partly thanks to EU vaccine imports and bilateral deals with Russian and Chinese governments. The purchases made Hungary the only EU country where ‘Western vaccines’ (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca) and ‘Eastern vaccines’ (Sinopharm, Sputnik V) directly compete for patient’s sympathies. Hungary thus emerges as a sampling device of an international vaccine struggle between Western and Eastern powers resembling a Cold War spirit not foreign to a nation with 50 years of state socialist past.
Eszter, 26, is a fashion journalist at a major magazine in Budapest. I know her since our high school days. Preparing for prom, we spent countless hours practicing our waltz dance. Eszter has asthma and her doctor called that there is a possibility to get a COVID-19 vaccination thanks to increased supplies. This happened around the same time when the Hungarian government imported 1,1 million vaccines from China directly against EU regulations.6 I talked to Eszter after and asked whether she got the Sinopharm vaccine? “The Chinese vaccine? Hell no,” she replied. “I am a Pfizer girl,” and she proudly tapped her shoulders where she received the jab.
A Pfizer girl, I smiled and remembered the pin-up girl posters of Coca-Cola advertising campaigns from the 1960s. These carefully drawn posters recall the ideal scenes of the American painter Norman Rockwell by their unique ability to evoke delight. Rockwell once said, “The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.”7 Similarly, I thought that Pfizer’s brand has come to embody an ideal world of health, technology, and prosperity with the global vaccine race. It turned out I was not far off the mark.
Power of branding
Pfizer introduced a new company logo in 2021. Instead of the text ‘Pfizer’ encapsulated in a pill form, the new logo features two open lines resembling a double-helix format. The company describes the significance of the new visual identity on their website, “Pfizer has become much more than a pharmaceutical company. Our new logo signals this shift from commerce to science.”8
With the success of their new mRNA vaccines with BioNTech, Pfizer utilizes this historical moment for rebranding. Partly to distance themselves from their negative reputation of greed and partly to embrace the halo effect of the breakthrough mRNA technology. In light of the drug maker earning $4 billion on vaccine profits in 2020, we can understand the new identity as a strategy to divert attention away from its profit priority.9 But this rebranding is no mere ordinary concealment strategy.
According to public opinion polls, the pharmaceutical industry was among the least popular commercial sectors.10 Today, drugmakers’ names are repeated more than ever, both in the media and in private conversations leading people like Eszter to construct consumer identities with pharmaceutical brands. This way, what anthropologist Kaushik Sunder Rajan calls “biocapital”11 gains a new meaning of embodied identities that operate invisibly, sailing below conscious experience. And Eszter is not alone with her feelings either.
Vaccine hierarchies in Hungary
A survey revealed that Hungarians overwhelmingly prefer the Pfizer vaccine above every other choice.12 For example, the jab developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca has been the opposite of Pfizer. The report of blood clots correlated with the vaccine has caused panic and done significant damage to its reputation. A general practitioner in Budapest reported that she needs to make twice as many phone calls to recruit patients for an AstraZeneca jab as for a Pfizer one.13 These are indications that vaccine brands stimulate social hierarchization where one brand conjures an air of superiority compared to another. It is no overstatement that the Pfizer brand was both in Eszter’s body and mind. Receiving the Pfizer vaccine elevated her above the crowd. But what about the others?
Vaccines from China face considerable public distrust in Hungary. The suspicion is reflected in how Hungarians, including Eszter, talk about them. For instance, Hungarians refer to the Sinopharm jab simply as the ‘Chinese vaccine.’ This way, the brand of Sinopharm is reduced to the country of China and becomes associated with an image of distrust and inferior quality. Not even Viktor Orban’s photo-op of getting the Sinopharm shot could help its reputation. Especially after Chinese officials publicly admitted its limited efficacy.14 Sputnik V, the ‘Russian vaccine,’ has a better reputation with Hungarians given the past of Soviet medicine. However, it still does not compare with the popularity of Pfizer.
From a geopolitical point of view, Hungary reveals an interesting perspective. The country where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ vaccines directly compete for the sympathies of the general population resembles Cold War-era dynamics where Western medicine was used to win over mostly less-developed countries from Soviet influence and enable further privatization in the US context.15
Also, the popularity of Pfizer with its ‘innovation’ messaging shows how brands play a crucial yet little-discussed role in this fight. Brands represent molecules and the very political-economic systems that produces them, often in controversial circumstances. We ought to take the role of pharmaceutical brands seriously in the COVID-19 pandemic both as a tool of commercializing health and as a weapon of international influence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ariel Bineth is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University (Vienna). He is interested in the commercialization of biotechnology and its effects on society.
Illustrations by Aliz Bineth
1 Zoltan Simon, “Hungary, With Highest Covid Death Rate, Says Virus Peaked,” Bloomberg.Com, April 20, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-04-20/hungary-with-highest-covid-death-rate-says-virus-has-peaked. 2 Csiki Gergely, “Túlcsordult a magyar egészségügy a koronavírus miatt – Megtaláltuk a szomorú kórházi számokat,” Portfolio.hu, 2021, https://www.portfolio.hu/gazdasag/20210321/tulcsordult-a-magyar-egeszsegugy-a-koronavirus-miatt-megtalaltuk-a-szomoru-korhazi-szamokat-475048. 3 IPI-Admin, “Crisis Point: Covid-19 Intensifies Challenge for Independent Media in Hungary,” International Press Institute (blog), 2020, https://ipi.media/crisis-point-covid-19-intensifies-challenge-for-independent-media-in-hungary/. 4 Kafkadesk, “Under the Cloak of Secrecy: Facts about the Ravages of COVID-19 in Hungary,” Kafkadesk, April 18, 2021, https://kafkadesk.org/2021/04/18/under-the-cloak-of-secrecy-facts-about-the-ravages-of-covid-19-in-hungary/. 5 Associated Press, “Hungary First in European Union for Vaccinations, and Deaths,” US News & World Report, 2021, //www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-03-29/hungary-first-in-european-union-for-vaccinations-and-deaths. 6 Vaczi Istvan, “Szinte már az összes kínai vakcinát beadták Magyarországon,” April 14, 2021, https://g7.hu/adat/20210414/szinte-mar-az-osszes-kinai-vakcinat-beadtak-magyarorszagon/. 7 Bob Greene, “THROUGH THE EYES OF NORMAN ROCKWELL,” chicagotribune.com, 2000, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2000-03-26-0003260237-story.html. 8 Pfizer Inc., “Our Visual Identity,” 2021, https://www.pfizer.com/our-visual-identity. 9 Julia Kollewe, “From Pfizer to Moderna: Who’s Making Billions from Covid-19 Vaccines?,” The Guardian, 2021, sec. Business, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/mar/06/from-pfizer-to-moderna-whos-making-billions-from-covid-vaccines. 10 Justin McCarthy, “Big Pharma Sinks to the Bottom of U.S. Industry Rankings,” Gallup.com, September 3, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/266060/big-pharma-sinks-bottom-industry-rankings.aspx. 11 Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). 12 Portfolio, “Nézőpont: a Pfizer a legnépszerűbb vakcina a magyarok körében,” Portfolio.hu, 2021, https://www.portfolio.hu/gazdasag/20210322/nezopont-a-pfizer-a-legnepszerubb-vakcina-a-magyarok-koreben-475130. 13 Bozzay Balazs, “Népszerűtlenebb lett az AstraZeneca, a keleti vakcinák sem túl kedveltek – mondják a háziorvosok,” telex, April 9, 2021, https://telex.hu/koronavirus/2021/04/09/nepszerutlen-az-astrazeneca-a-szputnyikra-is-sokan-huzzak-a-szajukat-a-pfizert-viszont-mindenki-keri-haziorvosok-a-vakcinakrol. 14 Deutsche Welle, “Coronavirus: Confusion over Efficacy of Chinese Vaccines,” DW.COM, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-confusion-over-efficacy-of-chinese-vaccines/a-57181029. 15 Dominique A. Tobbell, “‘Who’s Winning the Human Race?’ Cold War as Pharmaceutical Political Strategy1,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 64, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 429–73, https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrp012.