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‘Wildly political’ environment around vaccines creates room for ‘new leadership’: 23andMe CEO

·3 min read

The upcoming vaccine mandate for large companies announced by President Joe Biden earlier this month has drawn fervent backlash from prominent Republicans. Gov. Henry McMaster, of South Carolina, said he would fight it "to the gates of hell," while Mississippi's Gov. Tate Reeves called it "terrifying."

The political divide over the business mandate has become the latest battleground over the vaccine, now months after it was made widely available for U.S. adults and showed effective in preventing severe illness from COVID-19.

In a new interview, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, whose company makes at-home DNA tests, called the environment around vaccines "wildly political," saying that the discord creates space for "additional leadership" from allies of the scientific community who do not hail from traditional institutions like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

23andMe could play a role in providing some of that leadership, Wojcicki said, since the company sells a science-based health care product directly to consumers.

"Obviously, this is wildly political," she says of sentiment surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. "What that has done is it's opened up a door for additional leadership.

"I'm incredibly supportive of the agencies out there — the CDC and FDA — and it's really hard to be a scientific leader right now," she adds. "But I do ... [think] the public is hungry for other people that they can relate to."

As part of its vaccination push, the Biden administration has drawn on advocacy from celebrities like actress Eva Longoria, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo. Meanwhile, other prominent figures, like rapper Nicki Minaj, have cast doubt on the safety of the vaccine.

The divide over vaccination has also given rise to a class of influencers who spread misinformation about the shots over social media. Only 12 people are responsible for up to 73% of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook, according to a report released in March by advocacy group Center for Countering Digital Hate.

In highlighting alternative sources of scientific information, Wojcicki pointed to actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic and has posted vaccine information on the website of her lifestyle company Goop.

"One thing that I do think that the science world has missed is that people are looking more and more to relate to their physician, and to the science and make the information something that they can actually understand," Wojcicki says.

"I think that the scientific medical world is still kind of stuck into a world of white coats — call me by my title, and I use names that you can't understand, and I include a package insert that no one can read," she adds.

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a person was injected with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a person was injected with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Wojcicki, who has led 23andMe since its founding in 2006, spent nearly a decade on Wall Street as a health care analyst. Her scientific background dates back at least as far as her college education at Yale University, where she earned a degree in biology.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Wojcicki said that businesses like 23andMe develop health care relationships with consumers, making them well-positioned to play a leadership role amid disagreements over interpretations of science-based information.

"I think there has to be some of that consumerization of health care," she says.

"There's actually an opportunity for 23andMe — we tried to do this to have more of a role in scientific leadership," she adds. "Because I do think that people are looking for what to believe."

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