Ready to meet the science heroes behind the world’s first COVID vaccines? Ready to watch them dance on TikTok? Anna Blakney thinks you are. She’s an assistant professor and vaccine researcher at the University of British Columbia coaxing some of the mega-accomplished scientists behind the vaccines to join her in off-the-cuff choreography and conversation.
So far, she’s been joined by Robert Langer, MIT Institute professor and Moderna co-founder, and Pieter Cullis, the co-founder of Acuitas Therapeutics behind the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine.
Both of the science giants—who have literal thousands of patents and hundreds of awards between them—are, it turns out, also good sports who are up for the fun. In different videos, Langer and Cullis follow dance steps along with Blakney with unpolished flair and broad smiles. Cullis also tells viewers, “I got vaccinated yesterday with my own vaccine, and I recommend you do the same.”
Blakney first joined TikTok in October after she was invited to join Team Halo, a group of more than 100 scientists around the world recruited by the Vaccine Confidence Project at the University of London to use social media to encourage people to get vaccinated. The Team Halo effort is backed by the United Nations and Gavi.
She admitted her first thought about TikTok was that it’s just a social channel for teenagers and dance trends—which it is. However, Blakney discovered that the real-life, slightly goofy and sometimes awkward short videos are ideal delivery vehicles for transparency and science facts around the COVID-19 vaccines.
“People have a thirst for this information. They really want to see it and want to learn about it,” she said.
Pharma companies and vaccine makers may be harder to convince to join, but as drugmakers begin to embrace other less-formal social media channels, marketing experts are encouraging companies to experiment on TikTok as well.
TikTok can help personify information about vaccines, science and health topics in “a novel way for companies to help educate and engage people through compelling short-form content,” Silje Lier, VP of social strategy at Evoke Kyne, said recently.
Blakney drafted Cullis first because she knows him from working at the same university. She came up with the idea to feature him as a special guest and then asked him to join her to talk about his discovery and the importance of getting vaccinated.
She admits she left out the dancing part in her initial request to Cullis. However, when she told him she had prepared a dance choreography number, he gamely agreed and dove right in.
Langer was similarly easygoing. He not only agreed to the interview and dance duet, he also prepared his own magic trick to perform.
Blakney, who now has more than 210,000 followers, is just getting started. She’s got a list of COVID vaccine scientists, with several women up next on her list. Her day job responsibilities slow down video production, but she’s aiming for one “Unsung Hero” video every week.
“TikTok brings an air of transparency that we don’t always have. That’s part of it with pharma, right?” she said. “If you think about the vision of a pharma company, it’s a huge building that’s very secure and they’re in there protecting their secrets—and I think that’s where some of the distrust comes from. When you’re transparent, it helps people see what you’re doing and what’s your mission.”
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