Vaccine development has long been a male-dominated field. In the race to find a COVID vaccine and contain the spread of the virus, however, many of the main developments have been led by female scientists. And long may this trend continue.
COVID-19 has been a watershed moment in world history. Across the globe, millions have died, industries have collapsed, and seemingly endless lockdowns have transformed our daily lives.
But science led the fightback against the coronavirus, and a host of remarkable women spearheaded this charge. To mark this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we celebrate the female figures who are changing the world for the better and inspiring the next generation of female STEM talent.
1) Dr Kizzmekia Corbett: The Black scientist at the forefront of the COVID vaccine
Dr Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett is a viral immunologist and research fellow in the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland.
At just 34 years old, the North Carolina native led the National Institute of Health’s COVID vaccine research — and famously presented the team’s findings to the then President, Donald Trump. The team subsequently worked alongside Moderna to create a vaccine that has proven 94.1% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after the second dose.
In December 2020, Anthony Fauci, the NIC's Director and chief medical advisor to the President of the United States, praised the importance of Corbett’s contribution: "Kizzy is an African-American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”
With African-Americans being underrepresented at every level in STEM, Dr Corbett provides vital visibility and representation to young BAME students looking to break into science — particular Black female scientists.
Corbett has also been outspoken about her involvement in the vaccine development as a way to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine to an African-American community that has long been skeptical of vaccination programmes.
Speaking to Leapsmag, she said, “This person who looks like you has been working on this for several years... I wanted to be visible because I wanted people to understand that I stood by the work that I’d done for so long.”
2) Kathrin Jansen: The scientist heading up Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine R&D
When the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was shown to be 95% effective during clinical trials and subsequently became the first COVID vaccine to be authorised for regular use, there was much jubilation across the world of science and beyond.
For industry insiders, however, one person was particularly instrumental in making this happen: Pfizer’s inspirational Head of Vaccine Research and Development, Kathrin Jansen.
Throughout her illustrious career, the East German-born scientist’s work in vaccine development has contributed to the prevention of infectious diseases all over the world. Most notably, she led the development of lifesaving vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV), while also leading vaccines against meningococcal meningitis and pneumococcal pneumonia.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Jansen made the early decision to collaborate with the German biotech company BioNTech on a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA. Until then, mRNA was an unproven technology that uses ribonucleic acid to program the body’s immune system.
Indeed, prior to the authorisation of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, no mRNA vaccine had ever been approved for use. With the urgent nature of the task at hand, the challenge for Jansen’s 650-person team was huge — especially as vaccines typically take years to develop.
Despite the success of the vaccine, Jansen says “there’s a lot that remains to be evaluated.” With several new, more transmissible variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerging, the race is on to maintain high levels of protection against the virus and ease the pressure on supply chains.
With Jansen “currently working and making progress on a vaccine formulation that would require less cold storage temperatures,” we can expect to hear a lot more of her in the coming months.
3) Professor Sarah Gilbert: The vaccinologist who co-developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine
Professor Sarah Gilbert is the co-founder of Vaccitech, a biotech company that develops vaccines for infectious diseases and cancer. In 2020, she was also the driving force behind the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Despite her noteworthy accomplishments, Gilbert almost quit science altogether while studying for her PhD. However, she decided to have "one more go at a scientific career” — and we can be thankful that she did.
Years later, this decision would end up leading to the development of the University of Oxford's COVID-19 vaccine, which has proven highly effective at stopping people developing symptoms of the virus. The vaccine was developed in partnership with AstraZeneca.
Gilbert’s past experience at Vaccitech proved instrumental in determining the team’s approach to the vaccine. In 2014, she had previously led the first trial of an Ebola vaccine, while in 2019, she also led trials for a potential MERS virus vaccine in Saudi Arabia in 2019.
As the second trial of the MERS vaccine was underway in early 2020, COVID-19 emerged in China, and Gilbert realised the same approach might prove useful. With Chinese scientists publishing the genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2, Gilbert’s immediately team launched into vaccine development and began rigorous testing. By early April, the first batch went into manufacture.
The vaccine was approved for use on 30 December 2020 and the first vaccination was administered on 4 January 2021 as part of the U.K.’s vaccination programme. Research has revealed the vaccine — which is taken in two doses — has a single standard dose efficacy of 76% for three months after the vaccination.
4) Dr Nita Patel: The Indian-born scientist taking the world of vaccinology by storm
Patel’s story is arguably the most inspiring on this list. Growing up in rural poverty in India’s Gujarat state, her father almost died of tuberculosis (TB) when she was 4 years old, and she often had to beg for bus fare. The odds were stacked against her from a young age.
Now, the 56-year-old heads up an all-female lab team that has developed an 89% effective vaccine at her company, Novavax — a small biotech firm competing against the R&D might of pharma giants.
After Novavax got the gene for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in February, Patel's team worked round the clock to test more than twenty engineered variants of the protein. They then identified the version most likely to elicit a protective immune response.
Patel has since characterised details of this protein, identifying the precise locations where neutralising antibodies bind to it and creating a test to ensure the spike is consistent from one manufacturing plant to another.
Such is her contribution to vaccine development that her boss, Novavax chief scientist, Gale Smith, called her “genius and invaluable.”
Patel, who often spends 18-hour days in the lab, remains level-headed. She said, “people ask me if I’m tired, I don’t feel tired. my day just doesn’t end. And it’s the same with everyone else here. To me, nothing is impossible. So, having that mindset, nothing stresses me out, being honest.”
5) Jacinda Ardern: The Prime Minister who helped New Zealand become COVID-free
As the death toll from COVID continues to rise in several of the world’s richest nations, certain political leaders have come under intense scrutiny for how they have responded to the ongoing pandemic. One leader to which no such criticism can be directed, however, is the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.
From the early stages of the pandemic, Ardern displayed strong crisis leadership. She listened to the advice of World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologists, communicated openly with the public, and committed to a strategy of total elimination of the virus.
By grounding all flights to high-case countries and quickly implementing a four-stage alert system, New Zealand was able to contain the virus before it got out of hand. In June 2020, Ardern declared the nation virus-free.
When New Zealand locked down, it had only 102 cases and no deaths. By comparison, the U.K. had more than 6,500 cases and more than 330 deaths when it locked down around the same time.
According to Professor Martin Berka, an economist at Massey University in Palmerston North, "doing this early on with only over a few thousand cases [worldwide] at the time allowed them to basically stop the influx and stop the community transmission.”
The WHO has since praised Ardern’s government as an example for other countries to follow. Though there have been isolated cases in New Zealand since elimination was announced, health officials have acted rapidly to contain the virus and prevent another outbreak.