Women’s Role in The Race to a COVID-19 Vaccine

Written by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

In the midst of a health pandemic, it is difficult to hold on to hope. The influx of negative news bombarding our social media feeds negatively impacts our mental health, as it becomes increasingly difficult to see an end in sight with the current health crisis. During these times, a sense of hopelessness can contribute to feeling a severe lack of control of the situation, contributing to the belief that nothing can be done. However, it is important for us to know that what we don’t often hear about are the strides that many medical and health researchers are taking to create a COVID-19 vaccine to help eradicate the virus. What we need now more than ever is some positive news that will help us get through this challenging time. One of the things we can do is shed light on some of the health care professionals and researchers who are fighting to make a potential cure a reality. Keeping with the highlight of women in STEM fields, it’s encouraging to look at the many women who are at the forefront of finding a cure, not only to accentuate their efforts, but also to show young girls and women the critical role that female scientists play behind the scenes, which might then inspire them to pursue STEM. 

In latest news, scientists in Toronto have discovered “the agent responsible for the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19” (O’Neil, 2020). One of these scientists is Dr. Samira Mubareka, a microbiologist and infectious diseases physician who currently works at Sunnybrook Hospital. Her research involves working with a mammalian model to study transmission of influenza viruses, specifically working with guinea pigs in her research in order to analyze modes of transmission  (Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, 2020). Another scientist tirelessly working on a vaccine is Dr. Deborah Fuller, a vaccinologist and professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine (Weinberger, 2020). She specializes in DNA/RNA vaccines to stimulate antibodies that fight viruses, which she believes could be effective for creating a vaccine for COVID-19. Unfortunately, in the past, a DNA/RNA vaccine has not succeeded sufficiently in human trials to be approved for public use, but she is quoted as saying that “We know what immune response is needed, we know what the antigen we need to encode with our vaccines is, and we have the vaccine technologies to do it, so let’s run with it and see what we can do!” (Weinberger, 2020. Both Dr. Mubareka’s and Dr. Fuller’s persistence is the reassurance that society desperately needs at this distressing time. 

Moreover, an all-female scientist team in Maryland, U.S. led by Dr. Nita Patel, the director for vaccine development and antibody discovery at Novavax, are also working on finding a solution to this epidemic (Sanchez, 2020). While further tests need to be conducted, they have developed three possible vaccines that could potentially prove successful in human trials (Sanchez, 2020). Not only is this promising as a solution to combatting COVID-19, but it illustrates the hard work being orchestrated by women in science, and how their efforts can potentially change the world for the better. Dr. Patel says, “…knowing that it came from the hands of women, what do you think that will do for young girls who are looking into science?” (Sanchez, 2020). 

According to the World Health Organization in an analysis of 104 countries, women are at the forefront of fighting this global health crisis, as approximately 70% of global health care is comprised of women (Connley, 2020). On a smaller geographical scale, more than 90% of health care workers in Hubei, China are women (Connley, 2020). Studies have shown that men have a higher probability of death as a result of COVID-19, however, experts raise the question as to whether women have a higher chance of procuring the virus, considering their positions in health care (Connley, 2020). Ultimately, this goes to show the tenacious work that women are putting in to help others affected by this illness, whether in hospital settings or research settings. It is crucial that we recognize their efforts and do what we can as a society to protect them and be grateful for the difference they are making all over the world. 

Many women over the course of history have played a critical role in the development of vaccines. For example, Dr. Anna Williams (diphtheria vaccine), Drs Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering (whooping cough vaccine), and Dr. Isabel Morgan (essential part in creating a polio vaccine), are just a few women who successfully introduced healing and treatment to the public, specifically those who suffered from these debilitating illnesses (Rhodes, 2019). These examples serve as an inspiration for women who are interested in pursuing science, and fosters the belief that women can, and do, often produce positive change in STEM fields. Acknowledging these women’s roles in science and health care should shed light on their competence and ability to take affirmative action and bring about hope and optimism to our ever-evolving society. Without their efforts, positive societal transformation is either delayed or non-existent, which is why we should not take their endeavours for granted. Women’s achievements in the sciences and health care in today’s age will hopefully cultivate a new generation of women who believe that their personal strengths and capabilities are enough to fight systemic challenges that threaten to hinder their talents and efforts. With time, it is becoming increasingly obvious that women are needed in STEM fields as they continue to make their mark on the world.