Women – The Unsung Heroes of Vaccine Development

By Abigail Byrne

The historical role which women have played in vaccine development is as highly prominent as it is often neglected. Women have long played a vital role in this area of scientific advancement which is estimated to be responsible for preventing 2-3 million deaths each year. Especially with vaccination being a current topic of intense scrutiny as the world waits for newly developed vaccinations to alleviate the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to acknowledge the unsung heroes of this branch of medicine. Both in the today and in the past, women have always been at the forefront of vaccine technology, promoting discussions about the roles of women in STEM and the benefits which come with diversity in scientific fields.

One of the first great advocates for inoculation was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), who introduced a crude practice of vaccinating smallpox to the western world. After witnessing the very early forms of an inoculation program in the Ottoman Empire, where old women would come to villages with pus from a smallpox pustule and insert a small sample into a vein on the arm of patients, she returned to London promoting the procedure. For a disease which killed three in ten, was highly contagious, and was most highly communicable to children, a preventative measure was revolutionary. This procedure, which came to be known as ‘engrafting’, did carry some risks, as the local infection could spread to the whole body and result in a full case of smallpox. However, the substantial resistance it offered was more than enough for Montague to be able to first convince the British aristocracy to engraft their children, and eventually leading to it becoming a widespread practice throughout the continent. All despite resistance from the medical establishment, which dismissed it as Turkish folk medicine.

As inoculation methods became more refined the worlds first true vaccine was created. In 1798 Edward Jenner created a much safer smallpox vaccine which utilised calf lymph infected with cowpox, a similar but much less deadly virus than smallpox to humans. Jenner’s work was however at first met with great criticism; with many doctors claiming he was suffering from ‘cow mania’. It was due to the efforts of several pioneering women that the vaccine was even offered to the public. Aristocratic women, such as Lady Charlotte Wrottesley, depicted as an ‘early pupil’ of Jenner’s, vaccinated thousands of impoverished children in Staffordshire. Another named Mrs Bayley convinced over 2500 people to get the vaccination in Manchester, by promising a reward of 5s to anyone who fell ill with smallpox after their inoculation. It is estimated that ‘ladies of rank’ alone vaccinated thousands of children in these preliminary years, saving countless lives. These women were not doctors as the British Medical Association did not accept women until 1892, but they played a significant role in both protecting those most at risk of fatal disease in their communities and building public trust in the very first vaccinations. Through worldwide inoculation programs smallpox was declared to be eradicated by the WHO in the ‘80s, with the legacy of these pioneering women being undeniable.  

As women have over time become fully admitted into the medical and scientific world their impact on vaccine development has been vast. Dr Anna Wessels Williams successfully isolated a strain of diphtheria, creating the ‘Park-Williams No.8’ vaccine, the first to ever be developed by a woman. Disappointingly, it is now referred to as ‘Park 8’, keeping only her supervisor’s name. Following Williams there are far too many more influential women in this field than could be mentioned. But to name a few who developed vaccines in their own right; Dr Pearl Kendrick and Dr Grace Eldering, for whooping cough, and Dr Margaret Pittman, who developed a vaccine that protects against meningitis, as well as other work on cholera. Or Dr Ruth Bishop, who successfully led the team which discovered rotavirus, a pathogen which still kills on estimate 200000 children a year.

In the same way that women were at the forefront of promoting the worlds very first vaccinations, they are playing a leading role in the research of Covid-19 and the development of new vaccines. mRNA vaccine technology which is the basis of both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the product of work undertaken by Professor Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian biochemist. Her critical research into investigating how humans can be injected with RNA without causing an extreme inflammatory response was necessary for the creation of this innovative new type of vaccine. mRNA vaccines are quicker to develop than anything which has come before, as by removing the need to inject either live or dead viral material they are also much easier to produce in large quantities. As well as the immediate implications in combating Covid-19, they are a new technology which has much potential for future use.

There is the Novavax vaccine, development was undertaken by Dr Nita Patel and her all-female team. A vaccine which only days ago was found to be ‘highly’ effective against the UK strain, and is currently seeking regulatory approval. It is notable in the fact that this vaccine was developed primarily by women and immigrants, groups often under-represented in scientific research.  

Recently on International Women’s Day Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, attributed her over 50% female workforce as the explanation behind how the vaccine was developed so quickly, becoming the first to be approved in the UK. Türeci highlighted the lack of gender equality that is present across medical research and biopharma fields. Adding that women being under-represented in decision making roles, according to the WHO women occupy 70% of the care workforce globally, but only 25% of decision-making roles, is a ‘lost opportunity of mobilising precious talent’. Türeci credits the fact that 45% of her top management roles are filled by women as the reason they could make ‘the seemingly impossible possible’.

Prof Sarah Gilbert, developer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been praised for her devotion to the cause when working on the jab. Working from as early as 4am until late in the evenings she admits that this has been a tough year. Addressing the same briefing as Türeci, she speaks about the barriers facing women; “On the vaccine team in Oxford, two-thirds are female and all have worked incredibly hard for over a year, often while dealing with family responsibilities. However, of the senior positions on the team, only one-third are women.”. Gilbert also made clear that ensuring equal access by removing the barriers to promotion which women face is something she is working towards.

It is clear that this immense influence women have had in vaccine introduction, development and distribution in the past has carried over into the current climate, with women pioneering a large proportion of the solutions that promise to help us face the dire situation Covid-19 has caused. It is not that more women have suddenly started working on vaccines, it is that only now we are noticing, and giving them the recognition they deserve. Nevertheless, even though vaccine development features an impressive number of women in leading roles, the road to gender equality in this field and especially in other disciplines in scientific academia is long from being finished. and We can only imagine the gains society will reap once this has been achieved.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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