April 9, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

A new variant in covid speak

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Reynolds alerted me to an interesting new variant in covid speak, a metaphor used by the Canadian Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam in the context of talking about vaccines and variants (a variant is a virus with one or two mutations).

As reported by CBC on March 19, 2021, Tam pointed out that “the country is in a ‘crucial moment’ in the battle between vaccines and variants.’ If we don’t slow down the spread of the variants, team vaccine is at risk of falling behind,’ Tam said at a news conference. “But if we can hold on and give it that last push, by keeping up with personal protective measures and limiting our contacts to the extent possible, we will clear the path for team vaccine to cross the finish line.” (Italics mine throughout this post)


The metaphor of interest here is ‘team vaccine’. The relation between vaccines and viral variants is normally framed through the metaphorical lens of war, battle or race – indeed just when I was writing this, the US President Joe Biden said: ‘We’re still in a life and death race against the virus’ (7 April). And Tam doesn’t quite escape that framing either.

In contrast to war and race, the team metaphor has not been used a lot in the context of covid, indeed not enough – and it has, unfortunately not gone viral, it seems. There is one exception: In the context of pandemic management, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used the team metaphor instead of the then ubiquitous war metaphor – and, it seems to good effect. However, it seems to be barely used in the current context of covid vaccinations. One article with the headline “Team Vaccine” in The Courier Mail from 21 November 2020 talks of ‘unsung heroes’ that make Queensland safe. And that’s about it.

Using the team metaphor instead of a war metaphor is a good thing. However, Tam used the team metaphor not so much to highlight collaboration but contest, even battle, as she points out that “team vaccine is at risk of falling behind”, “clearing the path” and crossing “the finish line”, which, sadly chimes in with various contest and race metaphors used in the context of the vaccination roll-out here in Europe and globally. On a more positive note, she does encourage people to join ‘team vaccine’ to enhance their chances of ‘winning’.


I have briefly written about the race, rather than team, metaphor in a previous blog post, but things have moved on since then. Here in the UK all is quiet, eerily so, and people are lulled into a vaccine induced sleep of reason, it seems to me. By contrast, on the Continent there has been a resurgence of the virus and it’s creeping up again in the US, India, Brazil and elsewhere.

While starting to write this post, I saw this New York Times headline in a tweet by Carl Zimmer: “As Variants Have Spread, Progress Against the Virus in U.S. Has Stalled”. The article points out that the “country’s vaccine rollout has sped up” but also that “states also rolled back virus control measures” and “more-contagious variants have been gaining a foothold”.

The roll-back of virus control measures inevitably leads to more mobility in the population which gives the virus and the emergence of variants a chance to win, and potentially win over vaccines. It’s all about mobility and agility. Being fast or slow[ being too fast or too slow. As one article in The Guardian pointed out: “Vaccines are a static solution to a moving target – an evolving virus”. It’s a game that the virus knows how to play but we are only just learning the rules.

But it’s also about immobility, about staying still, stopping to stop the virus. As one article recently framed it:

“It is in many ways a race between vaccines and variants. Vaccines do not promote resistant viral strains as some claim. In fact, by preventing infections and reducing the daily case numbers, they give the virus fewer opportunities to mutate and thereby prevent new strains from developing. We all want the vaccines to win this race, but there isn’t much that we as a population can do to speed up vaccine development and roll out. But we can do something to slow down the variants. We can stay home.”

If we want to be in ‘team vaccine’, it’s perhaps immobility rather than mobility that’s important. It would provide vaccines with a chance to catch up.


So, we have a team, a race or contest or a game, where it is crucial to make a move at the right time – and, I suppose in a coordinated fashion – or indeed to choose not to move. Being a team helps. However, there are developments afoot that might disrupt this team work.

Vaccines have now become entangled in a whole slew of political rows, at least here in the UK. One row in particular centres around the issue of vaccine passports or certificates of some sort for some people or some places or some purposes. This is beginning to influence debates about the science of vaccines and variants, where generally it is assumed that variants might pose a threat to vaccine efficacy (there are exceptions).

Some politicians, such as David Davis here in the UK, arguing for opening up society, lifting restrictions and not using certificates, have said: “Well the variant argument is biological nonsense frankly.” And he went on to say: “And you won’t hear many serious scientists saying that.” Such proclamations without evidence may undermine public trust in ‘team science’. We shall see….


While language is relatively slow in generating new variants of metaphors to deal with vaccines and variants (race, war, contest still dominate), there might be more variety in visuals, but I haven’t explored that yet. I was wondering about that after Ahmed Abdel-Raheem, a specialist in metaphors and political cartoons, sent me some cartoons which show quite a lively creativity – which needs to be explored.

I have used one of them as my ‘featured image’ for this blog post. The cartoon was tweeted by Jordanian artist Osama Hajjaj and shows two taps: a green coronavirus-shaped tap from which an abundant stream of water/viruses flow, and a blue-white syringe-shaped tap hardly producing any water/vaccines. The difference between the number of infections and those vaccinated is remarkable. The message probably is that, at the moment, in Jordan, vaccines can’t keep up with the spread of the virus.

I think there is also another message here: that if you want ‘team vaccine’ to succeed, the team needs to be not only local but global.


I had just finished this post and was waiting for my posting day, which is normally Friday, when, on Thursday, I read this tweet by David Shukman, attesting to the fact that there will be more variants of covid speak associated with new variants of the virus, as long as vaccination isn’t global: “Brazil has become ‘a biological Fukushima’ creating new #coronavirus variants, ⁦@MiguelNicolelis tells me for #BBCNewsTen later tonight, along with the always clear ⁦@DrCharlieWeller of the @wellcometrust”,

Image: Osama Hajjaj (with permission)






Posted in infectious diseasesLanguageMetaphors