Women take the lead in vaccine science

Choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements
Women take the lead in vaccine science

We don't know who came up with the idea of vaccination first but what we do know is that today women have taken the lead in developing new vaccines, including those against Covid-19.

History of vaccines

We don't know who came up with the idea to intentionally infect a patient with a lethal virus to protect them from incidental exposure. The first hint of the practice comes from 10th century China, when a chancellor lost his eldest son to smallpox and sought a way to protect the rest of his family.

And from here the idea seems to have spread across the world, via India and Africa. The idea came to the Americas through slaves brought there from Africa. And it made its way to Europe through traders along the silk road, who brought it to Turkey where European ambassadors learned about it.

Up to the early 19th century, the term inoculation referred only to variolation (from variola = smallpox), the predecessor of the smallpox vaccine, which was called cowpox inoculation or vaccine inoculation (from vacca = cow). In 1861 it was proposed the extend the terms vaccine and vaccination to include other protective procedures that were being developed against infectious diseases, such as flu, measles, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and tuberculosis.

The women who are making a difference today

According to the United Nations, 70 % of health and social care workers are women. This puts women at the fore front of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. They are dealing with both the virus and the psychological effects the pandemic and the disease have on patients. And then there are the women who have taken a lead role in developing vaccines against the virus.

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines are RNA based. The most essential research development concerning RNA has allowed for the a quicker development of the vaccine and makes it easier to manufacture on large scales. Both essential in the current situation.

The discovery that has made this possible was made by Katalin Karikó. For years her idea, that mRNA could be used to fight disease, was considered too radical, which meant she lacked research funding. Eventually, Karikó and her former colleague Drew Weissman developed a method of utilizing synthetic mRNA to fight disease. That discovery is now the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is a vector vaccine, which was designed by Prof Sarah Gilbert in a little over a weekend as she was able to use an approach she had developed for a vaccine against the Mers virus. Gilbert has a long history in the world of vaccine research, having worked on malaria, flu and ebola previously.

There are many other women who should be noted for their work in the fight against Covid. Such as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who is one of the leading scientist behind the US Government's vaccine; Nita Patel, leader of Novavax's 'all-female' team; and Anika Chebrolu, a 14-year-old who identified a lead molecule that may be able to inhibit the corona virus.

And then there all also many women who work outside of the medical field, such as Ramida Juengpaisal, who helped to create Thailand's national Covid-19 tracker, and Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed, who developed new technology to reach those who due to Covid-19 containment measures were trapped in unsafe relationships or violent environments. And there certainly are many more around the world.

Throughout history, contributions made by women have often been left out of the 'official' accounts of events. Those times are over, now we seek out and celebrate women's achievements in line with the ideas behind International Women's Day on 8 March every year. For those wondering when International Men's Day is, that is on 19 November.

How do the new Covid vaccines work?

As of 16 February 2021, there are three Covid-19 vaccines that have been approved for use in the European Union by the EMA, European Medicines Agency. These three fall into two types, RNA and vector vaccines.

The RNA vaccines contain a protective envelope of lipids (fat) with an instruction (code) that tells your cells to make spike proteins. These are the spiky protrusions on the exterior of the coronavirus. The immune system recognises the spike proteins as foreign substances and starts making antibodies. 

The vector vaccine contains an inactivated cold virus (that cannot replicate) with an instruction (code) that tells your cells to make spike proteins. The immune system reacts by producing antibodies, just as it does in response to the RNA vaccines.

Effectiveness of the vaccines varies and depends on the age and health of the person receiving the injection. There is no 100% effective vaccine which means that you can still contract the virus but studies have shown that people who do become less seriously ill.

There are some common, usually mild side-effects related to Covid-19 vaccines which can occur within few days of receiving the injection. These include pain and sometimes swelling at the injection site on your arm, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever.