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The problems at 23andMe

It was big news last month when 23andMe got approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to resume issuing health-related reports as part of its testing.1

A relatively insignificant element for genealogists who’ve tested with that company, health testing is the raison d’être of that company — its real reason for being. Getting that approval even cleared the way for New York and Maryland to set aside some rather silly rules about testing with 23andMe;2 As of Friday, December 4, 2015, 23andMe was cleared to sell its kits anywhere in the United States.3

So all of us who’ve tested there for any reason — and that includes The Legal Genealogist — got the big purple notice on our results pages telling us that, starting November 11th, things were going to be changing.

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And particularly for genealogists, it seemed, not entirely for the better. Some features useful to genealogists were to be lost completely — Countries of Ancestry, for example, and the ability to see fully-identical regions (areas inherited identically from both parents, so the individuals are full siblings) versus half-identical regions (segments inherited from only one parent, which could reveal a half-sibling relationship) — and users (old and new) will no longer be able to contact matches who choose to remain anonymous. Even the health reports now available to early users may or may not be available at all after accounts are switched over. And the price tag — ouch. It doubled, to $199 from $99.

The uproar as a result was predictable, especially since so many of the answers to questions boiled down, in the final analysis, to “we don’t know yet.”

Now my test was an early test, so my results haven’t been changed yet. It was only last week that I was able to access a set of results on the new platform.

And it’s clear to me now that — well — at the very very best the new 23andMe site is a work-in-progress. And when all the dust settles and the smoke clears, we may find that it’s significantly less useful for genealogists than the old site used to be. That’s not a given; there is some nice potential to the new site. What’s also not a given is whether 23andMe cares about the genealogical community, and whether it will listen.

So… what do we do now?

If you’ve already tested with 23andMe, the time is now — right now — today — this minute — to save any information that may just up and disappear when 23andMe gets around to switching your kit to the new system.

First, go read Roberta Estes’ post “Heads Up about the 23andMe Meltdown,” at her blog, DNAeXplained. Read the whole thing, carefully, and then follow her suggestion: Download or Print Everything.

Then go read Shannon Christmas’ post on his blog, Through the Trees. Shannon is a 23andMe ambassador (a genealogist who tries to advise 23andMe, when 23andMe will listen), and his post, “Prepare for The New 23andMe,” gives you step by step instructions, with screen captures, on just what to do to make sure you keep as much as can be kept of the utility of the existing 23andMe system.

And the “not now” part? Well, that’s where I have to say, with some regret, that I’m taking 23andMe off my list of recommended testing sites at least for the time being.

Even on sale, the 23andMe kit is more than half again as expensive as testing with either Family Tree DNA or with AncestryDNA — and with Family Tree DNA kits now on sale, the difference is even higher. The genealogical utility of the new website is limited, and it isn’t clear how much better it will get — if that side of the site gets better at all. Even on the health side (a side I personally am not at all interested in), the reports we’re getting now are limited — newly tested kits get far fewer reports, mostly carrier reports, compared to older kits before 23andMe ran into its problems with the FDA.

Bottom line: if you tested with 23andMe back when, you need to act now to preserve your results. And if you haven’t tested yet, well… not now. Let the dust settle first.


SOURCES

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “The winds of change,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Nov 2015 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Dec 2015).
  2. See ibid., “NY and MD limits on 23andMe,” posted 23 Dec 2012.
  3. See “23andMe Genetic Service Now Fully Accessible to Customers in New York and Maryland,” posted 4 Dec 2015, Newswise.com (http://newswise.com/ : accessed 5 Dec 2015).
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