These are the women who are saving the world from Covid

Across the world, women are leading the charge in the fight against Covid-19. Credit: Twitter/Pfizer/Zhejiang University/BioNTech/ITV News/PA/University of Cambridge/University of Edinburgh

By ITV News Content Producer Alex Binley

With more than 136 million people across the world now having received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the world appears to be turning a corner in the fight against coronavirus.

While some countries are operating normally, albeit with strict border controls, for others such as the UK which have been amongst the hardest hit by the deadly disease, the rollout of the vaccine makes it seem as if the end, or at least a return to some semblance of normality, is just around the corner.

Huge scientific advances have been made during the pandemic and many of those pushing these new boundaries are women.

In celebration of International Women's Day, ITV News takes a look at the women who are saving the world from Covid.

Melissa Moore

Melissa Moore is a world-leading expert in mRNA technology. Credit: Twitter

Both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA) - the molecule that sends genetic instructions from DNA to a cell’s protein-making machinery – to create an immune response in the people that are jabbed.

Conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of the virus, but mRNA immunisations use only the virus’s genetic code.

In her own words, Melissa Moore is "arguably the world's expert" on mRNA and is also Moderna's chief scientific officer in charge of its mRNA technology.

According to her former university, William & Mary in Virginia, Dr Moore’s work over more than three decades underpins why Moderna, which focuses on mRNA and re-engineering it to develop drugs and vaccines - was in a position to develop its coronavirus vaccine.

Dr Moore had spent most of her academic career researching how cells in humans and other mammals use information in their DNA and transcribe or copy it to RNA as a code for blueprints to make proteins.

Moderna applied this knowledge to their Covid jab, creating a vaccine that when the mRNA is injected into the body, it enters cells and tells them to create antigens.

These antigens are recognised by the immune system and prepare it to fight coronavirus by creating antibodies.

No actual virus is needed to create an mRNA vaccine. This means the rate at which the vaccine can be produced is accelerated.

While the UK has 17 million doses of the Moderna jab on order (although the first will not arrive until the spring), the US government has 200 million, meaning a huge proportion of Americans will receive this vaccine.

With more than 468,000 Covid-19 deaths recorded in the US and more than 27 million cases of coronavirus, the Moderna vaccine will have a huge impact in the country.

Dr Özlem Türeci

Dr Özlem Türeci set up BioNTech along with her husband. Credit: Twitter/Dr Özlem Türeci

Doctor, scientist and entrepreneur Dr Özlem Türeci is one-half of the couple who set up the until recently not very well-known German biotechnology company BioNTech and is also its chief medical officer.

Prior to Covid-19, the company focused on cancer treatments and had never brought a product to market. And then coronavirus happened.

The company had been working with American pharmaceutical company Pfizer on a flu vaccine since 2018 and in March 2020, they agreed to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine.

This vaccine went on to become the first widely approved for use across the world with up to 95% efficacy, with the UK rolling it out from mid-December.

53-year-old Dr Türeci once had hopes of becoming a nun, but opted to study medicine instead and following BioNTech's success in the fight against Covid, she and her husband, Dr Ugur Sahin, are now billionaires and amongst the 100 wealthiest people in Germany.

Kathrin Jansen

Kathrin Jansen's decision to focus on mRNA meant the Pfizer/BioNTech jab was the first in the world to use this technology. Credit: Twitter

A large part of the success behind the Pfizer/BioNTech jab was due to Kathrin Jansen, the head of vaccine research and development at the US drug firm, according to Dr Sahin.

As the Covid pandemic hit, Dr Jansen focused her company on developing an mRNA vaccine, something no firm had managed to win approval to use in humans before.

And just 210 days after the beginning of testing in April to the completion of phase III clinical trials in November, the Pfizer/BioNTech jab was found to be safe and approved for use in the UK in early December.

Approvals in other countries soon followed.

Professor Sarah Gilbert

Professor Sarah Gilbert's work has helped produce the Oxford vaccine. Credit: John Cairns/University of Oxford

Professor Sarah Gilbert was the lead researcher on the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine trial.

The professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford began her work at the university looking at genetics and host-parasite interactions in malaria, before starting on vaccine development, which has included work on the flu vaccine.

She first read on New Year’s Day in 2020 about a new virus emerging in China, and spent much of the rest of the year working with her team to create a vaccine.

The mother of grown-up triplets said she knew she could work without much rest and endured some sleepless nights along the way this year.

But she said she never doubted what she and her team of researchers were doing – just that at times she worried about things they might have missed along the way.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “At the start of the year, I did have sleepless nights, wondering what it was that we haven’t thought about – what problem was going to trip us up, because nobody had realised that we needed to do it, but, actually, that never happened. Somebody had always thought of everything.”

Throughout the development process she was always positive, telling the Duke of Cambridge when he visited the Oxford Vaccine Group’s facility back in June that she was hopeful they would “see something”.

“The only question is how good it is and how long it will last,” she added.

Describing the team’s work on creating a vaccine, she told Today the final parts of the jab were designed in a weekend, given that they had a good basis in employing methods they had used previously.

After all their hard work – with the hopes of a nation and beyond on their shoulders – she said the team was “very happy” with the vaccine’s performance and told how they were all “really looking forward” to approval and rollout.

The UK has 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab on order.

Li Lanjuan

Li Lanjuan was instrumental in bringing about Wuhan's lockdown. Credit: Zhejiang University

When Covid erupted in Wuhan in early 2020, the city was soon put under lockdown, the likes of which the world had never seen before, in a bid to stop the deadly disease spreading.

As the rest of the world looked on, citizens of the then-little known city of 11 million were confined to their homes for 76 days.

The woman who called for that lockdown was Li Lanjuan who had been sent to the epicentre by the State Council, China's highest administrative body.

“If the infection continues to spread, other provinces will also lose control, like Wuhan.

"China’s economy and society will suffer seriously,” she said in an interview four days later on state television.

Epidemiologists believe that the immediate lockdown stopped Covid becoming a catastrophe in China and delayed its spread across the rest of the country, giving other cities and provinces between three and five days to prepare.

According to official figures, China, which has a population of almost 1.4 billion people, has only seen 4,825 coronavirus deaths and 100,000 recorded cases.

After arriving in the city at the beginning of the pandemic, the 73-year-old didn't leave.

Dr Li stayed in Wuhan to help care for people with Covid, and became a state-endorsed symbol of selfless doctors in the crisis.

She was often pictured in her medical garb, and referred to as “Grandma Li” on social media. 

Professor Sharon Peacock

Professor Sharon Peacock Credit: University of Cambridge

Sequencing variants of coronavirus is essential in the battle to overcome the disease.

It allows scientists to understand what the difference are and helps inform whether or not the vaccines we have will be effective against them or not.

Professor Sharon Peacock is Director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), a network of public health bodies and labs which is currently analysing almost 30,000 positive tests each day.

The UK is a world leader in genomic sequencing and COG-UK has helped scientists understand and track Covid as it evolves, allowing vaccines and life-saving treatments to be developed at unprecedented speed

Professor Devi Sridhar

Professor Devi Sridhar has shot to fame during the Covid pandemic, offering advice and answering questions on a daily basis. Credit: University of Edinburgh

Barely a day goes by when Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, Devi Sridhar, is not on our TV screens.

This time last year, the expert was not widely known, but her wealth of knowledge, easy-to-understand analysis and advice mean she is often explaining the unfolding coronavirus crisis to the nation.

However, Professor Sridhar is also keen to focus on the positives and can be frequently seen on social media reminding people to take comfort in the little joys of life, whether it be getting outside to enjoy nature in your local locked down area, or posting pictures of cakes online as the nation turns to baking, she's keen to promote a sense of optimism in what for many is a dark time.

Kate Bingham

Kate Bingham led the UK's Vaccine Taskforce until early December 2020. Credit: ITV News/PA

The route out of lockdown and back to normality is through Covid vaccinations, politicians have repeatedly said.

As on the end of Monday, more than 13 million UK adults have had at least one dose of a coronavirus jab, the third highest total in the world behind the US and China, but with higher vaccination rates per 100,000 residents.

Currently the government looks set to achieve its goal of offering at least one dose to the 15 million most vulnerable adults in the UK by Monday.

Although she stepped down from her post as head of UK Vaccines Task Force at the beginning of December, Kate Bingham was instrumental in ensure the supplies of Covid vaccines which the country is using now.

The UK has ordered 407 million doses of seven of the most promising vaccines - three of which have so far been approved for use.

Among them are 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine - enough to inoculate 50 million people.

This, when combined with the 40 million ordered Pfizer jabs, will cover the entire 66.6 million people who live in the UK, the health secretary has said.

However, Ms Bingham's time in her post was not without controversy, she has faced criticism for being part of the "chumocracy" applied to other senior players in the government's Covid response (her husband is treasury minister Jesse Norman).

Yet in an interview with ITV News, Ms Bingham palmed-off that suggestion pointing out that she already sat on several government advisory panels around vaccines and pharmaceuticals before the pandemic.

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern's swift actions have been credited as one of the reasons why life in New Zealand is almost back to normal. Credit: AP

Although not a scientist, Jacinda Ardern has been praised for listening to them, with New Zealand only seeing 25 coronavirus deaths and 2,324 cases.

In late March 2020, when only about 100 people had tested positive for Covid-19 in New Zealand, the prime minister and her health officials put the country into a strict lockdown with a motto of “go hard and go early”.

With New Zealand having the advantage of being an isolated island nation, the strategy worked.

New Zealand eliminated community transmission for 102 days before a new cluster was discovered in August in Auckland.

Ms Ardern swiftly imposed a second lockdown in Auckland and the new outbreak faded away. The only new cases found recently have been among returning travellers, who are in quarantine.

There is currently no community spread of the virus in the nation of five million and people are no longer required to wear masks or socially distance.

Other than strict quarantine measures for arrivals into the country, life in New Zealand is largely back to normal, with a concert attended by 20,000 people with no social distancing measures taking place in January.

Margaret Keenan

Although not a scientist, Margaret Keenan was written into science's history books when she became the first person outside of a clinical trial in the western world to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

At 6.30am on Tuesday, December 8, the 90-year-old was given her first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

Speaking to ITV News after her inoculation, Ms Keenan said she "didn't know how to feel", adding that it was all "strange" but "wonderful".