The female scientist behind the weapon against the COVID-19 pandemic

Last week, the whole world welcomed warmly, and with plenty of excitement, the new vaccine – the weapon to help us fight against the current pandemic

Results were impressive: up to 90% of success. After months of exhaustive trials and efforts, scientists, politicians, and citizens received the news with a big relief. Pfizer and Moderna launched massive clinical trials to prove their vaccines' efficacy. The battle was hard, with Pfizer winning it.

But do you know who is the brilliant talent behind? Phizer counted on one scientist to give it an edge: Kathrine Jansen.

Who is Kathrine Jansen?

Dr. Jansen led the research and development of two well-known vaccines against human papillomavirus and pneumococcus. The COVID-19 vaccine is the third achievement within her 36-year career experience.

Her fascination with medicines began when she was a small child in East Germany. She caught frequent throat infections and coughs. Her father, a chemical engineer, would always have a treatment — an antibiotic for her. "You're a small person, and you have this violent cough, and you feel sick as a dog," she remembered. "And then you get this drug. And it makes feel better."[1]

Shortly before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Jansen's family fled to West Germany. 

Dr. Jansen finished her doctoral thesis at Philipps- University in Marburg with the dream to work in the pharmaceutical industry. Her expertise lies in chemical pathways in bacteria. After her graduation, she moved to Cornell University in New York to investigate the acetylcholine receptor's function.

A few years later, in 1992, and after a short return to Europe, Dr. Jansen joined the vaccine division of Merk and started working on developing the HPV vaccine. Together with two researchers, Jian Zhou and Ian Frazer, Dr. Jansen proposed making the vaccine in genetically modified yeast, following the same pattern as the hepatitis B vaccine. After significant criticisms from her colleagues and scientists, Jansen proved that her idea was correct.

In 2002, a trial of 2,400 women, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed a vaccine against one strain of HPV, HPV 16, proved 100% effective.

In 2006, Dr. Jansen joined Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, where she was responsible for the research and development of the pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar-13). Emilio Emile, Wyeth's former Executive Vice President of Vaccine Research and Development, admitted that the team would not succeed without Kathrin's contribution. [2]

After Wyeth's purchase from Pfizer, Jansen succeeded Emini as the head of all Pfizer's vaccine research.

When the pandemic started spreading worldwide, Pfizer decided to collaborate with the German biotech company BioNTech on a vaccine for COVID-19 using mRNA. This unproven technology uses ribonucleic acid to program the body's immune system. But no mRNA vaccine has ever been used: this came as a challenge for Dr. Jansen.

Her career path and commitment to science is a bright paradigm for all girls and women who wish to follow the same direction. What is Kathrin's Jansen answer to girls whose dream is to become a scientist?

The division between genders within science persists in all countries, with data proving that less than 30% of women of the world's researchers are women. Kathrin Jansen is a great example to follow.

In a video recently made by Pfizer, she states "Don't let anyone say you can't do it. There is always someone who will support you."[3]

And this is the spirit to move forward. We are all very thankful for Kathrin's Jansen contribution to protect and save lives.

#SHESMYHERO #WomenInScience