International day of women and girls in science: Meet the sheroes behind the leading COVID-19 vaccines

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We are well versed with the old saying ‘Behind every successful man stands a woman!‘ But as the world gears up for the historical fight against the pandemic, we can proudly say that behind every successful vaccine now is a woman.

To commemorate such notable women, this year’s celebration of United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science(11th February), are focussing on the theme "Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19" and bringing together experts working in pandemic-related fields from various parts of the world.

Girls Buzz applauds these exemplary women today on the occasion of International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

K Sumathy:

Dr. K Sumathy is an Indian scientist who heads Bharat Biotech's research and development wing. The Indian biotech firm based in Hyderabad developed India's first indigenous vaccine, Covaxin. A member of the core team of scientists responsible for developing the COVID vaccine, she has also been involved in developing effective vaccines for diseases such as Zika and Chikungunya. As an experienced scientist, she brought deep industry knowledge to the team.

Nita Patel:

Nita Patel is the top molecular scientist at Novavax, an American vaccine development company based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Another feat in the production of the vaccine is that the vaccine team is described as 'all-female.' The Novavax vaccine candidate is currently in Phase III clinical trials in the United Kingdom and the United States for the prevention of Covid-19. As the senior director of the vaccine research program, the vaccine is also focusing on new and unique concepts. The chief scientist and her boss, Gale Smith, named Nita 'genius and priceless.'

Hailing from Sojitra, a farming village in Gujarat, she worked hard to get to where she is today. She was 4 years old when her family plunged into debt after her father almost died of tuberculosis. Though he recovered, he was unable to work again, and that inspired Nita to become a doctor and to find a cure for TB.

Renu Swarup:

Renu Swarup has been working with the  Department of Biotechnology (DBT) at the Ministry of Science and Technology for the last 30 years. She held the position of 'H' Scientist—which signifies an outstanding scientist. A central figure in the creation of the Biotechnology Vision in 2001, the National Biotechnology Development Strategy in 2007 and the Strategy II in 2015-20, Swarup was engaged in critical research to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

In an interview with The Print, Swarup said that she was busy scaling up the production capacity of start-ups who had made low-cost testing kits and ventilators for Covid-19.

In the light of concerns about the UK-linked strain of coronavirus, Renu Swarup has recently been involved in efforts to research the effect of vaccines and diagnostics on the new variant.

Priya Abraham

Dr. Priya Abraham, Director of the National Institute of Virology(NIV), Pune, made a major medical breakthrough by isolating the lethal coronavirus in India to further improve understanding of the disease.

The NIV confirmed the first three positive Covid-19 cases in India. The institute had initially carried out all the tests, but ICMR eventually expanded the number of labs, predicting a spike in cases. Under Abraham's leadership, the NIV helped these laboratories with troubleshooting and delivered reagent supplies to the labs.

Abraham holds MBBS, MD (Medical Microbiology) and Ph.D. from Christian Medical College in Vellore, where she also served as the former head of the Department of Clinical Virology at CMC Vellore. Abraham also planned the curriculum for the doctor of medicine (DM) in virology at the request of the Medical Council of India.

Sarah Gilbert:

A British vaccinologist and Vaccitech's co-founder Sarah Gilbert is one of the most notable scientists who created the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. In late-stage clinical trials, the vaccine was up to 90 percent successful. Together with Adrian Hill, she collaborated to develop the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine’s foundation which they finally patented successfully. In March 2020,  UK's National Institute for Health Research and the UK Research and Innovation awarded this team €2.2 million.

Hanneke Schuitemaker:

Hanneke Schuitemaker is a Dutch virologist and professor of virology at the Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam. She also serves as global head of Viral Vaccine Discovery and Translational Medicine at Johnson & Johnson. The 57-year-old scientist has conducted the Covid-19 vaccine development research along with her research on the HIV vaccine.

The latest evidence from the Phase 3 clinical trial showed that Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine that had been sent to the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration for Emergency Use Authorization on 4 February is 66 percent effective in the prevention of COVID-19 infection. 

While the efficacy level of 66 percent is below that of other vaccine frontrunners, scientists found the vaccine to be 85 percent effective at avoiding significant COVID-19 illness by 28 days of vaccination. In comparison, the candidate seems to be effective in preventing serious illnesses in individuals afflicted with new, potentially more infectious strains.

Elena Smolyarchuk:

Elena Smolyarchuk is a Russian scientist and director of the Centre for Clinical Research of Medicines at Sechenov University, Moscow who spearheaded the Russian vaccine project, Sputnik V. She was the lead researcher of the Russian vaccine development study.

Kathrin Jansen:

The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, which was more than 95% successful than other Euro-American vaccines, was led by German scientist Kathrin Jansen She organized endless conversations with a team of 650 members. Kathrin Jansen is the Head of Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer. Since moving from Germany to the US, she continued to conduct her research on a yeast-based HPV vaccine. She also coordinated the research process on the mRNA approach for the development of the vaccine.

We can definitely agree that women are not only capable of creating lives but saving them too. Hats off to these warriors.

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