Podcast host Joe Rogan clarifies vaccination comments: 'I'm not anti-vax'

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Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan, Spotify's most popular podcast host, often sparks controversy

Hugely popular US podcast host Joe Rogan has backpedalled on his comments that young, healthy people could forgo the coronavirus vaccine.

"I'm not an anti-vax person," Rogan said. "I believe they're safe and encourage many people to take them."

But Rogan did not walk back his suggestion that the young and healthy do not "need" vaccines, which drew backlash from White House officials.

Experts say everyone over 16 should get vaccinated to stop the virus' spread.

The Joe Rogan Experience was Spotify's most popular podcast in 2020, though the streaming giant did not share the number of times his episodes were downloaded. Rogan has more than seven million followers on Twitter and 12.5 million followers on Instagram.

His podcast was acquired by Spotify last year for more than $100m (£77m).

Asked about Rogan's comments, top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci repeated guidance from experts that unvaccinated, asymptomatic people can still transmit Covid-19.

"Even if you don't have any symptoms, you're propagating the outbreak," Dr Fauci said.

Rogan made the comments during a 23 April episode of his podcast, which was first reported by Media Matters this week.

In that episode, Rogan told listeners that he would not suggest the vaccine to a healthy 21-year-old. "If you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well...like, I don't think you need to worry about this."

Responding to the criticism on his podcast on Thursday, Rogan said the argument that young people need the vaccine "for other people" made sense.

"But that's a different argument," he added.

And Rogan stressed that he should not be a source of scientific advice. "I'm not a doctor," he said. "I'm not a respected source of information, even for me."

The TV host-turned media mogul regularly courts controversy for his blunt and sometimes inflammatory style on air. He has been accused of making sexist, racist and transphobic comments in his podcast. Rogan has denied these accusations and said his comments were taken out of context.

Risk v freedom of speech

Analysis box by James Clayton, North America technology reporter
Analysis box by James Clayton, North America technology reporter

Joe Rogan is a huge draw for Spotify - so much so, in fact, that his show was mentioned in Spotify's quarterly earnings call. Joe Rogan's podcast had "performed above expectations," the company said.

Spotify wants to be the place you go to for podcasts and The Joe Rogan Experience is a major plank in that strategy. You might come for Joe Rogan, but stay to listen to other podcasts. Spotify says it's seen a "strong increase" in the number of people listening to podcasts since the pandemic hit.

However wrapping yourself around a controversial figure like Rogan has its dangers - and this saga illustrates that risk.

Rogan said when he signed the deal with Spotify that he would have editorial control. Spotify have publicly backed the podcaster.

But of course Spotify does have the power to pull the podcast.

As ever Big Tech says it's is trying to balance two things: risk to the public v freedom of speech.

However there's always a third factor. Money.

When the face of your podcast offering says something that US politicians, the White House and medical experts deride as dangerous - that doesn't look good for Spotify's brand.

For now, it looks like Spotify is willing to back the podcaster, and Rogan will hope his retraction will draw a line under the matter.

Rogan is not the only US public figure to be accused of anti-vaccine remarks.

Current US Vice-President Kamala Harris said during the election campaign last year that she would not trust any vaccine approved by the Trump administration. Then-US Vice-President Mike Pence accused her of "playing politics with people's lives".

Kamala Harris
US Vice-President Kamala Harris was last year accused of anti-vaccine comments

Two coronavirus shots - by Pfizer and Moderna - were subsequently granted authorisation under Mr Trump. Ms Harris received the Moderna jab after the election and said then it was safe.

Last year, both Rogan and Spotify faced criticism over the appearance of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his show.

The streaming giant has so far stood by its star host, touting Rogan's podcast in its first quarter earnings report this week. Spotify did not immediately return a BBC request for comment.

"We have 8 million creators, and hundreds of millions of pieces of content," Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told Bloomberg News. "We have a content policy and we do remove pieces that violate it."

US and global health authorities have found Covid-19 vaccines to be safe and effective in preventing infection and safety checks continue throughout the world.

Experts have warned that misinformation has been fuelling vaccine hesitancy.

In the US, nearly 100 million people have been fully vaccinated. This week, President Joe Biden urged all Americans to get their jab, calling it a "patriotic duty".