Meet the women behind the vaccines, helping to find a path out of the coronavirus pandemic



From paving the way for mRNA vaccines to be used, to overseeing large-scale clinical trials, much of the critical work in bringing COVID-19 immunisations to the world has been done by women.

They may not be household names, but behind the scenes these researchers and doctors have worked tirelessly to try and etch a path out of the pandemic.

And while they have faced their fair share of challenges along the way, they are acutely aware of the importance of their roles — not only in combating the virus, but in countering the disinformation that comes along with it.

These are just some of the key players.

Katalin Karikó, pictured in 1989, in a white labcoat.
Katalin Karikó, pictured in 1989, paved the way for mRNA vaccines and countless other potential treatments.(Supplied)

Katalin Karikó

Without Dr Katalin Karikó, the mRNA technology that powers the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines would probably not exist.

In 2005, the Hungarian-born biochemist and her American colleague, Dr Drew Weissman, discovered how to sneak synthetic messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) past the body’s defence systems, paving the way for mRNA vaccines and countless other potential treatments.

Karikó, now 66, has spent more than 40 years of her life researching mRNA, but was repeatedly overlooked for funding.

In 1995, she was demoted from her faculty role at the University of Pennsylvania because her bosses thought her work was too far-fetched to attract investment. It was the equivalent of being sent back to the bottom of the career ladder several decades in.

While others focused on gene therapy, Karikó was convinced mRNA held the most exciting potential.

“And from the outside it seems like, ‘Oh, you struggled’,” she says. “No, I had fun.”

Karikó's family at the London olympics.
Karikó’s family got used to her working on weekends, she says.(Supplied)

Karikó’s husband and daughter got used to her working on weekends. She says her husband understood that “this is not a job for everybody”.

“When something comes to your mind, and the laboratory is there, then where else? I always say, well, who else? Where else?” Karikó says.

“If we are here in the US, we should do it. We should not rely on other countries with less resources.”

She is now a senior vice-president at BioNTech, the German company behind the Pfizer vaccine.

Vaccines are just the beginning

Weissman was one of just a handful of people who saw what Kariko saw: if they could find a way to deliver mRNA to the body without causing an inflammatory reaction, its potential to combat disease was enormous.

In 2005, they published a breakthrough paper outlining how to do it — by modifying mRNA’s nucleosides — opening the door to therapeutic use. A later discovery found coating mRNA in lipid nanoparticles could make it work in vaccines.

Before Weissman arrived at the university and took up her fight — after she pitched him at the photocopier — Karikó had offered RNA to “at least” 30 other people.

“Every time I was in a meeting and somebody would sit next to me I’d say, ‘What are you working on? Oh, that would be good for RNA, I can make RNA for you!’,” she says.

“People would just put the face on and say, ‘Oh Kati is just a crazy woman, forget the crazy woman’.”

Vaccines are just the beginning of the possibilities.

Dr Drew Weissman and Dr Katalin Karikó in an office.
Dr Drew Weissman and Dr Katalin Karikó discovered how to sneak synthetic messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) past the body’s defence systems.(Supplied)

AstraZeneca is running phase 2 clinical trials of an mRNA treatment for heart failure, while BioNTech and Sanofi are trialling mRNA-based therapy for tumours.

Karikó’s own team has researched using it against multiple sclerosis and the skin disease dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa.

When Karikó was 16, her biology teacher told her to read Hans Selye’s pioneering book, The Stress of Life. It fostered a lifelong attitude that makes her equally circumspect about the setbacks and the speculation that she and Weissman will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“It was about focusing on what you can do. Whatever is out of your power, don’t worry, because then you have a life full of stress,” she says.

“You cannot control other people. I never cared about the colleague who had four times more salary than me, when he doesn’t do anything, just sits there … I cannot care!

“That award, the prize — that’s someone else’s decision. They can give it, they can pull it back; I have no control. I just focus on the work.”

Maheshi Ramasamy

Australian-Sri Lankan doctor Maheshi Ramasamy often misses Melbourne during the long British winters, but this year her mind has been on other things.

Dr Ramasamy is the senior clinician on the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trials, responsible for overseeing the safety of 23,000 participants in the UK and around the world.

Dr Ramasamy is the senior clinician on the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trials.
Dr Ramasamy is the senior clinician on the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trials.(Supplied)

Ramasamy, who once worked at Ballarat Base Hospital, now lives in Oxford with her oncologist husband and three children, aged 15, 13 and 10.

She divides her time between being a consulting physician, a principal investigator for the Oxford Vaccine Group, and a fellow and tutor at Magdalen College.

Normally she works on two or three trials a year, with just 20 or 30 people at one site.

“This was a completely different beast,” she says. “The hardest thing was trying to set up a study of this size at speed in the middle of lockdown.”

It was a huge challenge to recruit the UK’s 12,000 participants, keep them socially distanced and secure enough PPE, all while handling intense public interest.

It reached the point where Ramasamy was being approached in the supermarket by strangers who wanted to discuss T-cells.

“As a researcher you kind of bumble along, publish a paper now and then, but no one pays much attention. Here there was so much scrutiny,” she says.

“It was brilliant that people were engaging with science, but it did mean some volunteers had pretty nasty experiences.”

A AstraZeneca logo sits behind vials of generic vaccine.
AstraZeneca is the pharmaceutical company behind the clinical trials of the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine candidate.(Reuters: Dado Ruvic)

She says their first volunteer, Dr Elisa Granato, was “trolled online” by someone who said she had died.

It forced them to become “a bit more savvy about it”.

“It was really horrible,” she says. “It never occurred to us that might happen.”

‘People were coming in really sick and dying’

Ramasamy was on the infectious diseases ward at her hospital during the March week last year when coronavirus patients started to flood in.

“The day before we had one patient with COVID, and the next morning we had nine, some of them really sick,” she says. “It just snowballed from there.”

She says in the early days it was “disempowering” not knowing how to treat them. “People were coming in really sick and dying, and there was nothing we could do about it.”

Ramasamy became interested in vaccines and immunology while at high school in Sri Lanka, when malaria, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis were major public health problems.

She says when she graduated from medical school in the UK, there were almost no female consultants for role models. While things are better now, certain specialties such as surgery still lack women, and representation usually tails off with seniority.

“When I had my first daughter and was coming back from mat leave I wanted to work part-time,” she says.

“I had a friend who also had a young kid and we applied to do this medical registrar job together, 50/50 as a job-share, and it blew everyone’s minds. And now it’s quite commonplace.”

As for her work on the COVID-19 vaccine — she’s not done yet.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered, she says.

“I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll get to this point and take a break’, but then there’s always the next point, and the next point,” she says.

Catherine Green

Every Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that is made around the world can be traced back to a small batch of starter — barely enough to fill a yoghurt pot — made in Dr Catherine Green’s Oxford lab in March.

“You can think of it like a sourdough starter,” she says. “We used some to make a few hundred vaccines for the first clinical trials in the UK, and we shipped some off to AstraZeneca to start the manufacture of larger batches.”

Dr Catherine Green in her Oxford lab.
Every Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that is made around the world can be traced back to Dr Catherine Green’s Oxford lab.(Supplied)

Green leads the Clinical Biomanufacturing Facility at the University of Oxford. Together with her 29-person team — 18 of them women — she put Professor Sarah Gilbert’s DNA design into cells, which made the virus that became the vaccine.

She says it took her team 65 days from receiving the DNA in February, to beginning the human trial on April 23.

“Normally it would take around six months, because we would test at each stage and wait for the results,” she says.

“For this, we assumed testing would be okay and started the next stage before results were in. This is faster, but if a test had come back as a fail we would have had to go back and start again.”

She recalls the day the final purified material was put in the lab’s isolator, ready to be put into vials. One of her team members came “dancing out of the cleanroom”.

“She sent everyone an email with the images, saying, ‘Look at these babies!’,” she says.

“That was the first time we knew we had enough vaccine to start the trials.”

The clear "test tube" (actually a centrifuge tube), held in the clamp, contains one-sixth of the total first vaccine batch.
The clear “test tube” (actually a centrifuge tube), held in the clamp, contains one-sixth of the total first vaccine batch.(Supplied)

In mid-July Green was “shocked” to see the vaccine’s immunology results on the nightly news. They had been under “very strict instructions” not to discuss the results before publication.

“We had been told the previous week that the data was looking good — the vaccinated volunteers were making the right antibodies and immune cells,” she says.

“It was the first evidence that the vaccine we’d made was really going to work in people.”

‘What would you need to see to change your mind?’

Being at the centre of vaccine research gives Green an inside perspective and plenty of material for countering disinformation.

She found herself wielding it in a Welsh campsite last summer. While waving her phone around trying to get a signal, a woman nearby started talking about the “evils” of 5G.

“There are a lot of people out there who just don’t have enough information,” says Green. “As scientists we have to be really open about putting our work out there.

“All you can do is say, what evidence can I provide to show you this isn’t true? What would you need to see to change your mind?”

Those who spread disinformation are “very good at storytelling”, adds Green, who believes the science community “sometimes fails to story-tell well enough”.

“We’re not this corporate, ‘big pharma’, Bill Gates conspiracy theory … we’re Cath and Sarah. Ask us and we’ll give you an answer,” she says.

“I don’t know what people who spread disinformation get out of it but we can only counter it with good information.”

Green and Gilbert recently signed a deal to co-author a book telling the inside story of the Oxford vaccine. Vaxxers will be published in July.

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