History says that vaccines is a field dominated by men. But the science behind them, which is currently showing spectacular results, is now led by women.
Let’s look at the mRNA vaccine, which is the technology foundation for Moderna and Pfizer / Biontech vaccines . Putting it simply, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune system response rather than injecting live or dead virus material.
Done correctly, that makes the vaccine faster to develop, safer to use, and easier to make at scale. In addition to its upcoming role in fighting Covid-19 , the mRNA vaccine platform can likely be adapted to fight other viruses, and other mRNA products may have additional uses, such as helping treat skin disorders.
Katalin Karikó’s work
The main work behind the mRNA approach comes from Katalin Karikó , an emigrant of Hungarian origin who came to the United States to work on RNA-related issues.
Her career ran into difficulties, including trouble raising funds for research and a fight against cancer, but she persisted. He ended up working with Drew Weissman and they figured out how to inject RNA material into humans without causing excessive inflammation, which had previously been the critical barrier to progress.
Karikó ended up working with Biontech, a German startup founded by Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türecii , a husband and wife team, whose parents were Turkish emigrants in Germany.
Nita Patel leads the Novovax team
Then there is the vaccine from Novovax , which is based in Gaithersburg, Maryland . The Novovax results have yet to be published, but they are said to be very promising. This vaccine is also based on new ideas, using a system that produces proteins in a very innovative way.
The Novovax team is led by Nita Patel, an immigrant from Gujarat, India . Her vaccine team is identified as “exclusively female.” Patel is from a very poor family; her father nearly died of tuberculosis when she was four years old and often had to beg to pay for the bus ticket.
Lisa A. Jackson, in Moderna
The common theme here is that women and immigrants have figured prominently at crucial points. Phase one of Moderna’s trial, for example, was led by Lisa A. Jackson at the University of Washington.
Moderna’s co-founder and president, Noubar Afeyan , is a doubly immigrant. Born in Lebanon , his parents immigrated to Canada and then he moved to the United States. The rapid development of all these vaccines could turn out to be the greatest scientific advance in decades, and it has been driven by people who, in another time, would never have had the chance.
Impact in other areas
This is a positive development, a sobering truth, and a warning about the future. In business, academia, and other fields of science, women do not have as prominent roles as they do now in vaccine development. Given how much women have contributed to vaccines this year, it stands to reason what kind of impact they might have in other areas.
The argument is not that women and men achieve exactly the same results. There may well be reasons why talented women are more attracted to vaccine development than other areas. Still, the recent and unprecedented impact of women in this field means that there are other endeavors of concern to society that would greatly benefit from greater participation by women.