Experts Column

Women all across the world and in India are working long hours to counter the adversities caused by COVID-19 crisis. Be it attending to patients as front-line healthcare workers, nursing home caregivers, or community leaders while juggling with their childcare and family commitments, women are doing it all.

It is pertinenet to note that women make up 70 percent of the world’s health workers and first responders. Not only as the health workers, but even women in STEM are also toiling hard to tackle the COVID-19 Pandemic. Women in STEM are leading research pertaining to the virus, creating trackers, and are helping develop vaccines. On average, around 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women.

Women’s representation in STEM was increasing leading up to COVID-19. However, the pandemic has had a disproportionate social and economic effect on women, as many have been burdened with childcare responsibilities or lost employment in the most affected sectors – including women scientists.

According to UNESCO’s forthcoming Science Report, women represent almost half the students at Bachelor’s (45%), Master’s (55%), and PhD (44%) levels of study. However, only 33% of the world’s researchers are women.

UNESCO is bringing together some of the world's leading COVID-19 experts for a virtual event to inspire more girls and women to pursue careers in STEM fields.

“We need science, and science needs women. This is not only about making a commitment to equal rights; it is also about making science more open, diverse, and efficient,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

Let us take a look at some of the most prominent women in STEM who have been leading the fight against Covid 19 and have been making a difference around the world during the pandemic.

In 2008, Dr. Özlem Türeci and her husband, Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founded BioNTech, a biotechnology company in Germany. BioNTech and Pfizer, a pharmaceutical giant, created the first ever COVID-19 RNA-based vaccine in 2020. The pair told that they welcomed the news that it was 90% effective with a cup of Turkish tea. The scientists, who were recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, intend to manufacture two billion doses of the vaccine this year to help end the pandemic.

Dr. Swaminathan, a pediatrician and one of India's top public health experts noted for her pioneering tuberculosis research, was appointed the World Health Organization's (WHO) Chief Scientist in 2019. She has since been coordinating international vaccine production efforts. She spoke about challenges women researchers face at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference  2020: “It is more difficult for women researchers to get their grants approved … and women also have difficulties in getting their results published, if you are from developing countries, in journals, because of perceived biases. I have faced those kinds of challenges and biases.”

Ramida Juengpaisal and her team had built a tracker of COVID-19 cases in 2020 at web design firm 5LAB in Bangkok, Thailand. The tracker gives the city’s eight million residents up-to-date news and information about the pandemic and helping to stop the spread of misinformation. She told Reuters the perception that girls are less suited to technology-based roles is gradually shifting: “We need more women in tech. One good thing about this crisis is that we have seen people – including women – come forward to create things that are useful to others, and be recognized.”

Prof Gilbert is the Oxford Project Lead for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which the World Health Organization has already approved for use by all adults worldwide. She quickly expanded on her work creating a MERS vaccine, which used chimp adenovirus to inject the spike protein into humans, when the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus was released in January last year. Now she is working on a new version of the vaccine to tackle the South African variant.

After the first COVID-19 case was registered in the province of Herat in Afghanistan, Somaya Faruqi and her all-female robotics team began designing a low-cost, lightweight ventilator using locally available, second-hand car parts. She told UN Women: “Sometimes, families think science and tech are male fields and prefer that their girls don’t enter them. We have fewer role models for young women in these fields, and that makes it more challenging for young women to enter this industry.”

Neema Kaseje is the founder of the Surgical Systems Research Group in Kenya, which aims to use youth, technology, and community health workers to rapidly expand access to health services. By integrating digital technologies and data science with the work of young people and community health workers to raise awareness, the organisation has helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in Siaya County since May 2020.

American public health researcher Prof Sridhar is a leading authority on COVID-19 in the UK and Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University. Her work analysing the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is well-known. Among many media appearances, she discussed why ethnic minorities in Europe and North America were more vulnerable to COVID-19 on the World Economic Forum's World Vs Virus podcast.

L'Oréal Indonesia has given Dr. Prasetyoputri the 2020 L'Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship For Women in Science (FWIS) for her work on bacterial coinfections in COVID-19 patients using swab sample sequencing. Patients with COVID-19, whose immune systems have already been compromised by the virus, are more vulnerable to other viruses and bacteria. So Dr. Prasetyoputri devised a fast and painless method of detecting these infections – and assisting doctors in prescribing the appropriate medication.

United Nations honours Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja for efforts to fight the pandemic. She works in containing the spread of Covid-19 and treating patients who had tested positive. The experience of handling the Nipah outbreak in 2018 and the two devastating floods in 2018 and 2019 helped her in preparing for the pandemic. Shailaja says “Trace, Quarantine, Test, Isolate, and Treat”, “Break the Chain”, and “Reverse Quarantine” are the three strategies adopted by Kerala in containing the virus. She said, “Right from the time when COVID cases got reported in Wuhan, Kerala got into the track of the WHO and followed every standard operating protocols and international norms and hence, we have been able to keep the contact spread rate to below 12.5 percent and the mortality rate to 0.6 percent.”

Though the proportion of women in STEM is less comparatively, the impact they create is visible and needs to be encouraged. They're working on vaccines and therapies that aren't yet available. They are guiding everyone toward a better and safer world and encouraging the next generation of female scientists and technologists.