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Four researchers responsible for the life-saving COVID vaccines open up to PEOPLE in this week’s Women Changing the World issue

By Johnny Dodd
March 04, 2021 12:00 PM
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It was in early January 2020 that Dr. Kathrin Jansen — who'd been following the frightening reports of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak in China — remembers thinking, "This virus could very well get out of control." 

Her prediction came true, and within weeks, the 63-year-old head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer was leading an unprecedented effort involving a team of more than 700 researchers to create a vaccine in months — instead of the more common 10 to 15 years. 

"I always say, 'You learn a few tricks if you work on something long enough,'" Jansen tells PEOPLE in an interview in this week's magazine.    

While the early days of vaccine science were dominated by male researchers, women like Jansen are now on the frontlines in the quest to find vaccines capable of ending the global COVID pandemic.

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Dr. Kathrin Jansen
| Credit: Natalie Keyssar

And perhaps no one is more important to that effort than Dr. Katalin Karikó, whose pioneering research helped make several of the vaccines possible.

The Hungarian-born biochemist has been fascinated — obsessed, actually — with mRNA, a molecule that decodes human DNA into the proteins that our bodies are constructed from, since her days as a college student in Hungary starting in the 1970s. 

"I remember thinking to myself, "This is it!" says Karikó, who was convinced that mRNA could be used to create a new category of therapeutic medicine. 

But first someone needed to find a way to make this potentially groundbreaking therapy viable. 

Karikó, 66, ended up spending 16 years in the laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was demoted and told that she wasn't "faculty quality" after school officials grew frustrated by her lack of progress. 

For more of the Women Changing the World issue, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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Dr. Katalin Karikó
| Credit: Rachel Wisniewski

"I was always known as the RNA lady," she says of her tireless quest, which eventually paid off in 2005 when she and a colleague, immunologist Drew Weissman, finally discovered how to make the new technology work. 

"It's not important that anyone know my name," insists Karikó who in 2013 joined BioNTech, the pharmaceutical firm that partnered with Pfizer to make the first COVID vaccine from mRNA. "As long as I know that I contributed, it makes me feel good."   

Kizzmekia S Corbett
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
| Credit: Cheriss May

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, also played a pivotal role in helping to create the vaccine in record time.

Her work on Moderna's vaccine, which has been praised by Dr. Anthony Fauci, involved fabricating a protein that, in her words, "tricks the human immune system" into blocking the infection and disease caused by the coronavirus.

Corbett insists that she's "happy and humbled" by the role she played over the past year but wishes the pace could have been quicker.

Her next endeavor: convincing any skeptics that the vaccine is safe. "It's not my job," she says of her outreach efforts, "but it is my duty." 

The final link in the development of several of the COVID vaccines fell on the shoulders of Dr. Lisa Jackson, a senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. 

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Dr. Lisa Jackson
| Credit: Chona Kasinger

Jackson led the world's first COVID-19 clinical vaccine trial, overseeing the first shot of the Moderna vaccine in Seattle on March 16, 2020, and then later pivoting to help with the final stage of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson trials.

Her mantra throughout the process: "Failure is not an option."

Because of the threat of viral variants and the need for updated vaccines, her work shows no sign of slowing down. 

"If anything," says Jackson, "it's intensified."