As it is well-known, International Women’s Day was commemorated on March 8. That historic date at the international level recognizes the arduous struggle of women to achieve equal rights and freedoms, as well as equal labor, educational and political conditions, in a world still characterized by huge gender inequalities. It is an opportunity to make visible the long-standing injustices, but also a reason to highlight the relevant social roles that women have assumed up today.
This struggle has been strengthened over years and has evolved into the worldwide feminist movement, which defends the vindication of the women’s social role, by challenging the existing patriarchal structures, disqualification, discrimination, and exclusion due to gender. Throughout time, this movement has driven a process of getting freedoms as old as the genesis of modernity itself but constitutes a continuous battle against inequality and privileges that some have retained through active-and-systemic violence.
Considering the commemoration takes place in this peculiar pandemic scenario, it is utmost importance to recognize the efforts and contributions that women have made to advance and overcoming this health emergency. Some are behind the vaccines, others behind the discovery of SARS-CoV-2 and others died before Covid-19 emergence, but the work of all of them has helped to learn more about this issue and proposing alternatives to overcome and/or avoid the disease.
A first relevant contribution was given by Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist and crystallographer who contributed significantly to the construction of the double helix model of DNA, developed from her work with X-ray diffraction images. This work later made possible the experimental replication of DNA of bacterium Escherichia coli. In 1962, some years later, his co-workers received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for such important achievement; however, despite her prominent contribution, her name was not included. As a result, the entire field of molecular biology is open and every genetic analyses today are critical for knowledge of the viruses-and-bacteria information for vaccine development and disease treatment. Although it is not a recent discovery, it is one of the main bases for every research has been carried out on SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, including its detection methods, genetic sequencing, and development of vaccines.
Other significant studies were carried out by June Almeida, a Scottish scientist who, thanks to her knowledge of electron microscopy, managed to obtain an accurate image of a virus like influenza but different growing conditions; this virus would be called coronavirus due to its structure like a solar corona. This work was of great importance to identify a group of viruses causing the current sanitary emergency.
On the other hand, Dr. Shi Zhengli, Director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and her team had been studying bat-borne viruses for years and already described the coronavirus before the global outbreak of COVID-19. Their work established the pathogen and identified it as a new virus within the same family of SARS with 96.2% genome overlap with the most closely related known coronavirus, which they named SARS-CoV-2.
In short, the research conducted by Sarah Gilbert, a British vaccinologist specializing in development of vaccines against influenza and emerging viral pathogens, was critical to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, one of the four vaccines approved for marketing against COVID-19. This scientist has been distinguished for her participation to develop other very important vaccines, such as the universal flu vaccine underwent clinical trials in 2011.
Also, the work of Nita Patel, the current head of the scientific team at Novavax, a company whose coronavirus vaccine is currently in the final stages of clinical trials. Although it is not yet ready, experts are already calling it one of the most promising. In fact, all the vaccines under development and already being administered have a female researcher among those mainly responsible for their development. For example, Katalin Karikó, the senior vice-president of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, together with other scientists, contributed to develop the wide-spread distribution Pfizer vaccine, which has been also administered to millions of people around the world.
But women’s contributions are not only found in scientific and technological developments hoping to curb the health emergency, also they are on the front lines of care, since according to data of World Health Organization, women make up 70% of the personnel working in the health and social assistance sector. This puts them at the center of the response to COVID-19, even though they often remain under-represented in decision-making and management.
Rector of the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional