J&J backs 'Masking For A Friend' campaign starring Hillary Clinton, TikTok influencers and more

A new social media campaign backed by Johnson & Johnson encourages people to wear a mask to protect others during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandemic Action Network (PAN), supported by J&J, launched “Masking For a Friend” with celebrities, including former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, actress Annie Potts, TV personality Andy Cohen and TikTok influencers, advocating homemade cloth masks to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

J&J, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a founding supporter of PAN, and the pharma giant's role is both financial and participatory. PAN's more than two dozen member groups include the CDC Foundation, iHeartMedia, Evoke Kyne, Federation of American Scientists and ONE Campaign.

“Masking For a Friend” is PAN’s first social health campaign and looks to reinforce the message that everyone should wear cloth masks to prevent transmission, but also to preserve resources for healthcare professionals. Amid the “to wear or not to wear a mask” recommendations, consumer confusion has arisen around why physicians wear personal protective equipment—to protect themselves from virus-shedding patients—and why regular people should wear it—to prevent themselves from spreading disease.

RELATED: How is COVID-19 affecting drugmakers? J&J execs offer some early clues

The campaign launched in the U.S. and Africa last week with the goal to incorporate education and behavior change, which are the best tools to respond to COVID-19, said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, a co-founder of PAN. She has worked on social health behavior campaigns with celebrities to reinforce messages around malaria and Ebola.

“As we’re going to be seeing these peaks and valleys over the next couple months, what kind of information do we need to get out and how do we get it from trusted sources? We are making sure to use public health messaging, but as we all know, not everyone listens to public health messages,” she said, noting that’s where celebrity and influencer messaging comes into play.

In Africa, for example, rugby star Siya Kolisi, who is the captain of South African national rugby team, is helming the effort, encouraging people to wear masks and join the movement by sharing a selfie while making masks or wearing one during essential errands and using the hashtag #MaskingForAFriend.

While this first PAN campaign promotes ways people can protect themselves and others during the COVID-19 outbreak, the group is also looking to develop ways to more quickly respond to future epidemics and pandemics with countermeasures and policy infrastructure, said J&J’s Adrian Thomas, M.D., who heads J&J global public health programs and strategy around global health security threats and pandemic preparedness.

RELATED: AbbVie, Pfizer, Novartis and more pledge millions in COVID-19 disaster relief

“COVID-19 highlights for the world that despite a lot of concerns about pandemic preparedness—experts around the world have been saying it was not a matter of if, but when—this is showing us we were still caught by surprise, and we’ve had to almost build a COVID-19 specific response from the ground up,” he said.

The PAN group hopes to change that for future outbreaks while also messaging best practices during this one. The “Masking” push will expand to India and countries in Europe and South America in upcoming weeks.