Women in the health and social care workforce

Women make up 70% of health and social care workers internationally, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) analysis of 104 countries. In England, over 76% of all staff employed by the NHS are women. When this is broken down by profession, women make up over 88% of all the nurses and health care visitors employed by the NHS in England. Throughout the pandemic, many healthcare professionals, particularly nurses, were redeployed in part of a national effort to fight Covid-19.

Last year, the NHS celebrated the vital role hundreds of thousands of women have played in the pandemic. In a statement contributed as part of this celebration, Sam Allen, chair of the NHS Confederation’s Health and Care Women Leaders Network, said:

Women across the health service, as well as our friends and colleagues in social care, have contributed in so many important ways to shape the NHS response to the Covid-19 crisis over the past year.

When we pause to reflect on the fact that [nearly] seventy-seven per cent of NHS staff are women, we must also pause to salute and honour the role that each and every one of them plays in delivering amazing patient care.

Female scientists have also played a prominent role in the race to develop an effective vaccine against Covid-19. Whilst women make up a majority of those in the health and social care workforce, women make up just 30% of the world’s researchers. The American Association of University Women notes there is an under-representation of women in science, and that more needs to be done to address this imbalance. Despite these statistics, the work of many female scientists has been instrumental in developing effective vaccines against Covid-19.

Women of the vaccine

The contribution of female scientists has been extensive throughout the pandemic, from Özlem Türeci, co-founder of the biotechnology company BioNTech, to Ramida Juengpaisal, a 24-year-old creating a national Covid-19 information tracker in Thailand. Some other examples of UK and US female scientists who helped advance the race to develop a vaccine are profiled in more detail below.

Professor Sarah Gilbert: co-developer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

Sarah Gilbert is a professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University. She was an integral part of the team that designed the platform that underpins the AstraZeneca–Oxford ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine. Professor Gilbert has been working to create recombinant (live) viral vectors for many years. This was in an attempt to allow vaccines to induce a T-cell response; a response which may improve a vaccine’s longevity and efficacy. This recombinant viral vector and T-cell response is the mechanism that underpins the AstraZeneca–Oxford ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine.

In less than 12 months from its first approval for use in the UK in December 2020, more than two billion Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine doses have been supplied across the world. Two-thirds of the doses have been delivered to low and lower-middle income countries. Whilst the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is no longer the primary vaccine used in England, the Economist reports that it is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that “has probably saved more lives than any other”.

Professor Gilbert was awarded a damehood in the Queen’s birthday honours in June 2021 for “services to science and public health in covid vaccine development”. Read more about Sarah Gilbert’s story: BBC News, ‘Prof Sarah Gilbert: The woman who designed the Oxford vaccine’, 23 November 2020.

Dr Katalin Karikó: made synthetic mRNA a possibility for Covid-19 vaccines

Katalin Karikó is an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Penn) and a senior vice president at BioNTech. She dedicated years of her life to researching the therapeutic possibilities of messenger RNA (mRNA). This research has helped guide the development of several mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines, including those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Whilst researchers like Dr Karikó have been studying mRNA for years, the Covid-19 vaccines were the first mRNA vaccines available to the public. Traditional vaccines trigger an immune response by delivering a weakened or inactivated germ into the body. However, mRNA vaccines work differently—they trigger an immune response by teaching cells inside the body to make a protein (or part of a protein) to fight. For the Covid-19 vaccine, the mRNA instructs the body to produce the ‘spike protein’, a protein found on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19.

Dr Karikó faced multiple setbacks during her work on mRNA, including grant rejections and job losses. However, she continued her research into the potential of mRNA, including its use in vaccines. In 2021, Katalin Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman received recognition for their ground-breaking developments in mRNA technology and its contribution to the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines, as they were awarded the 2021 Lasker Award, widely considered as America’s top biomedical research prize.

Read more about Katalin Karikó’s story: New York Times, ‘Kati Kariko helped shield the world from the Coronavirus’, updated 24 September 2021.

Dr Kizzmekia Corbett: US Government vaccine scientist

Dr Kizzmekia Corbett is a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC). She has been praised as a key scientist behind the US Government’s development of a Covid-19 vaccine. Dr Corbett’s work with colleagues at the NIH was instrumental in the development of the mRNA vaccine by Moderna.

For her work, Dr Corbett was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Key of Life Award, recognising extraordinary achievements in civil rights, human rights, and community work. She was also awarded the 2021 E.E. Just Award by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), recognising the outstanding scientific achievements of a US researcher belonging to a historically excluded racial or ethnic group.

Read more about Kizzmekia Corbett’s story: Nature, ‘This Covid-vaccine designer is tackling vaccine hesitancy—in churches and on Twitter’, 11 February 2021.

Anika Chebrolu: 14-year-old trying to find a cure for Covid-19

Whilst the world’s leading universities and pharmaceutical companies raced to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, 14-year-old Anika Chebrolu from Texas started a science experiment of her own. Anika successfully used in-silico methodology for drug discovery to find a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in the hope of finding a cure for Covid-19. If a molecule could first bind, then inhibit the viral protein, it could potentially stop the virus entering cells and create a viable drug target.

Her hard work led to her winning the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge, being awarded $25,000 and the prestigious title of ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’.

Read more about Anika Chebrolu’s story: CNN, ‘This 14-year-old girl won a $25K prize for a discovery that could lead to a cure for Covid-19’, 19 October 2020.

UNESCO International Day of Women and Girls in Science

On 11 February, the United Nations, partners worldwide, and women and girls across the globe will mark the 7th annual UNESCO International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day highlights the importance of both science and gender equality for international progress.

Cover image by Braňo on Unsplash.