Women's History Month Blog Series: Who Developed the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Updated: Apr 19
By: Keegan Coleman
“It’s been a tough two years,”-- a phrase we've heard countless times over the past few months, referencing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the impact of the pandemic has been challenging, 2022 has seen a cautious return to normalcy. I can’t speak for everyone, but for that, I am grateful. And I, along with all of the other sound-minded individuals who have received doses of any of the COVID-19 vaccines, have numerous remarkable women to thank for their contributions to the vaccines that have enabled us to finally see a light at the end of this never ending COVID tunnel.
When we were all “safe at home” running out of Netflix shows to binge, failing in our bread-baking endeavors and attempting to find new hobbies, women like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Kathrin Jensen, Katalin Kariko, Sarah Gilbert, and Nita Patel were working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Scientific leaders like these women often go unrecognized, or at best, are not given the attention that is deserved for their groundbreaking accomplishments. And while a single blog post doesn’t change that fact, it should serve to highlight just several of the many women who have made life-changing discoveries and impacts in the field of health and medicine.
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett is a viral immunologist, currently working as an Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Prior to that, Dr. Corbett was a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC).
Following the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Corbett led a team that designed the vaccine concept that would go on to be deployed to Moderna, Inc, where it was approved by the FDA in an unprecedented 66 days. In addition to 15 years of experience in various influenza, coronavirus, and vaccine research, Dr. Corbett was named to Times Magazine’s Heros of the Year 2021, Time’s 2021 100 Next list under the category of Innovators, and even has a day to honor her in Orange County, North Carolina.
The head of Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer, Jansen oversees a team of 650 people. Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, Jensen led the way for Pfizer/BioNtech’s efforts in vaccine research. Before bringing the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine to the market in less than a year's time, Jensen also spearheaded the development of Prevnar, which prevents pneumonia in kids and adults, and Gardasil, which protects women from getting HPV.
Along with her contributions to vaccine research, health, and medicine, Kathrin Jensen has authored and co-authored over 190 publications, was named one of Nature’s 10 People Who Shaped Science, and is a member of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) Scientific Advisory Committee, the American Society for Microbiology and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Katalin Karikó is the co-founder and former CEO of RNARx, and current Senior Vice President of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals. Karikó's work includes the scientific research of RNA-mediated immune activation, resulting in the groundbreaking discoveries that led directly to the COVID-19 vaccines used by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
Awarded Time Magazine’s Hero of the Year in 2021, Time’s 100 Most Influential people of 2021, Forbes “50 over 50” list and the recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, Karikó has been the recipient of a slew of various awards following her outstanding work.
Founder of Vaccitech and Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, Sarah Gilbert was the architect of the Oxford vaccine. Partnering with AstraZeneca, the Oxford vaccine has since been distributed 2.5 billion doses in over 170 countries worldwide.
Specializing in the development of vaccines against influenza and emerging viral pathogens, it took Gilbert only 2 weeks to develop the framework for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was approved for clinical trial in a remarkable 65 days. Her work on vaccine research and contributions to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to her being featured on “The Times UK” “Science Power List” of 2020, named to BBC’s 100 Women list, and being awarded the Rosalind Franklin Medal.
Hanneke Schuitemaker is the Global Head of Viral Vaccine Discovery and Translational Medicine at Johnson & Johnson's Janssen Vaccines & Prevention. Along with being involved in the development of Ebola, influenza, HIV, and RSV vaccines, Johnson & Johnson turned to Schuitemaker to lead a team to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, which has allowed nearly 16 million people to receive immunity from an initial single-dose.
Schuitemaker is also a Professor of Virology at the Amsterdam University Medical Center of the University of Amsterdam, and has more than 20 years of experience in academia on the subject of the pathogenesis of HIV infection and has co-authored close to 300 peer reviewed scientific publications.
Nita Patel is the Director for Vaccine Development and Antibody Discovery at Novavax (born 1965) is an Indian-American physician and vaccinologist who leads vaccine development at Novavax. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, Patel led the efforts at Novavax to develop a vaccine that is planned to be distributed over 2 billion doses in 2022.
This list just scratches the surface of the contributions women have made to global vaccine efforts in mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19. Suffice to say, their groundbreaking work has saved the lives of millions, and improved the quality of life of so many around the world. Women like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Kathrin Jensen, Katalin Kariko, Sarah Gilbert, and Nita Patel prove that women can enter a male-dominated field and leave an immense impact.