Moderna, Pfizer or AstraZeneca? The ridiculous, diverting rise of vaccine envy

Casual vaccine chat is today’s only form of small talk, so it’s not surprising it would take a lightheartedly tribal turn. Ultimately, of course, gratitude is at the heart of the conversation

Last week, I had cause to go searching for images of men getting vaccinated (it’s not a fetish – it was for work) and I turned up a photo from a flu vaccination drive in 2012. I tried to think back nine years: did we have anti-flu-vaxxers? Were there different types of vaccine and did we care which one we got? These are rhetorical, by which I mean stupid, questions. Even when I think I don’t remember, I remember perfectly well. We never thought about the flu vaccine, because we didn’t really feel anything about flu.

There’s something endearing about the intensity of opinions about Covid vaccinations, as though we’re all trying to wrestle every untamed feeling about the giant, untoward event of the pandemic into more manageable shapes and sizes: tribes and allegiances, preferences and views. It’s like being a teenager again – the emotions are just too vast to comprehend, too volatile to make sense of. But maybe if I scratch “AstraZeneca” on to my desk, someone else might like AstraZeneca, too, and then at least there would be two of us.

In the vaccine tribes, people who have been Pfizered have the most kudos. Pfizer seems to be more effective after two doses than the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine (protection against hospitalisation is about 96% with Pfizer and 92% with AstraZeneca, and AstraZeneca fares worse after one shot), but this sense of prestige has nothing to do with effectiveness. It’s just that a lot of them were first to get the jab. That makes no sense – they were first because they were the oldest, or the most clinically vulnerable. But there’s no point splitting hairs about why they were first, because they were.

If we look back on anything from this brutal period fondly, it will be those early days at the vaccination centres, people grinning from ear to ear and thanking everyone, even the obligatory local-news cameraman. There was also a kind of performative fearlessness, one in the eye to the anti-vaxxers. I’m not afraid, because medicine is nothing to be afraid of.

The fact that the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored initially at an extremely low temperature also makes it sound hyperscientific, like an ultramedicine from the future. It also has a great origin story: it was invented by Dr Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, a husband-and-wife team, who did lab work on their wedding day and are astronomically rich, but still spend all their time reading journals. I don’t know why this detail is remarked on so often. How are rich people supposed to pass the untenanted hours? Counting their money? Never mind, there it is: the more I think about the Pfizer, the more I wish I’d had it.

Moderna has rarity value. This makes no sense, either, by the way. The UK has bought 17m doses of Moderna – it’s about as rare as a mouse on a tube track – but you have to admit, you still get a little bit excited when you see one. When people who have had the Moderna meet at parties, they nod at each other like Beetle drivers. (I’m guessing here, as there are no parties.)

AstraZeneca is normcore, the 100m-dose monolith of the UK market. You can’t distinguish yourself at all with an Oxford vaccine: you are basically running with the herd (although at least you have immunity). Unfortunately, humans yearn for distinction, so everyone who has had AstraZeneca tries to find some novel spin on it, usually with side-effects. You never hear people who have had Pfizer talking about their sore arm, or their mild, flu-like symptoms. It’s not because they didn’t get them – it’s because they were special already.

There’s a view that, if you get side-effects that aren’t life-threatening, you shouldn’t mention them, as you just put off other people from being vaccinated – and besides, what are you, a baby? I definitely agree with this. Stoicism is a great asset and a headache is a small price to pay for protection against a potentially deadly virus. It’s quite rude to scientists, when you think about it, that they bust their balls and pull who knows how many all-nighters to save a billion lives, only to find us all turning round, going: “I still felt a little bit tired in the afternoon, three days later.”

Unfortunately, if anything happens to me at all, I am constitutionally incapable of not mentioning it. If I see someone on a bus with the same face mask as me, I mention it. If I spend a day incapable of doing anything but watching crime procedurals and asking for fizzy drinks in a whiny voice, I’ll be mentioning that for weeks. So this is what passes for singularity, in Oxford-vaccine-world: we all tell each other in private how we felt afterwards, on a minute-by-minute basis, while maintaining a public face of “just a scratch, nothing to see”.

Just when I’d about had it with vaccine news, two friends, double-AstraZeneca-ed, found out both their teenagers had Covid. The chances of social distancing in a family are basically zero – and still neither adult got it. These things really work, goddammit.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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