Women Lead Vaccine Development Across the Industry


Notable contributions from female leaders in the pharmaceutical industry demonstrate the exceptional competence of women in vaccine innovation.

Women are increasingly leading the charge in the pharmaceutical industry, breaking through barriers and making substantial contributions to vaccine development. Their influence is increasingly vital in driving progress and advancement in the ongoing battle against infectious diseases. In the laboratories and executive offices of leading pharmaceutical companies, women scientists are driving groundbreaking research and strategic planning.

Black female scientist looking through microscope while working in laboratory.

Image credit: Drazen | stock.adobe.com

With expertise, determination, and a strong commitment to enhancing global health, these women are pushing boundaries, redefining approaches to vaccine design, development, and distribution. Their contributions extend beyond the laboratory, as they advocate for equitable access to vaccines and collaborate with stakeholders to address pressing public health challenges. Women are leading multidisciplinary teams, driving evolution, and accelerating the pace of vaccine development. Their efforts are not only advancing scientific knowledge but also transforming the way we approach disease prevention and control on a global scale. Women across numerous pharmaceutical companies have made exciting and inventive contributions within vaccine evolution and improvement.

Pfizer's Leading Women in Vaccine Science

At Pfizer’s Pearl River facility in New York, Annaliesa Anderson, PhD, has led an all-female team to a significant breakthrough by securing FDA approval for an unprecedented maternal RSV vaccine.1 This vaccine is designed to protect newborns from severe respiratory infections during their critical early stages of life. Anderson's role was crucial in navigating the complex vaccine development process, from initial concept through clinical trials and final regulatory approval. Her expertise in vaccine research enabled the team to effectively address the scientific challenges associated with RSV, leading to a solution that promises to protect millions of infants worldwide.1,2

In addition to Anderson's impactful work at Pfizer, the leadership team at the Pearl River site includes several other remarkable women whose contributions have propelled vaccine science forward. Alejandra Gurtman, MD, who serves as the Senior Vice President of Clinical Research and Development, has significantly advanced Pfizer's vaccine portfolio. Notably, she played a pivotal role in the development and testing of several key vaccines, including Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. Her leadership was integral in the rapid development and testing phases, ensuring that the vaccine met thorough safety and efficacy standards before reaching the public. Gurtman's contributions also extended beyond the COVID-19 vaccine, as she led efforts to enhance Pfizer's vaccine portfolio in areas such as influenza, pneumonia, and meningitis.3

Building on the strides made by Anderson and Gurtman, Kena Swanson, PhD, Vice President of Viral Vaccines, further demonstrates women’s leadership in the field. Swanson has been instrumental in the research and rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, helping it swiftly obtain emergency use authorization and subsequent licensure. Additionally, Swanson assisted in developing and advancing RSV vaccine candidates tailored for both maternal and elderly populations, focusing on meeting significant public health needs.4

Iona Munjal, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Pfizer, has also played an essential role in vaccine research, focusing on combating Staphylococcus aureus and RSV. Leading a clinical investigation into a Staphylococcus aureus vaccine tailored for surgical patients, she acquired invaluable insights for future research, despite not achieving desired efficacy outcomes. Currently, she is actively involved in formulating a maternal immunization initiative aimed at shielding newborns from RSV, drawing upon her profound expertise in maternal and pediatric health.5

Merck's Public Health Champion

During her leadership at Merck, Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, made substantial contributions to public health, notably in the realm of vaccine development and distribution. She was instrumental in the acceleration of new vaccines for diseases such as Ebola and HPV, ensuring their rapid development and approval.6,7 Under her leadership, significant strides were made in expanding vaccine access to underserved populations globally, often through strategic partnerships and innovative distribution programs.8,9 These efforts not only enhanced availability of Merck’s vaccines but also solidified the company's role in responding swiftly to emerging health threats, and therefore also reinforcing the integration of public health principles in pharmaceutical practices. Now, Gerberding serves as CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

GlaxoSmithKline’s Exceptional Vaccine Advocate

Under Dame Emma Walmsley's leadership as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the company has achieved significant advancements in vaccine development. Notably, GSK has expanded its range of vaccines to address pressing global health challenges, introducing vaccines for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that previously lacked effective preventive measures. Walmsley's strategic decisions have emphasized the use of advanced technologies such as mRNA and adjuvant systems to enhance vaccine efficacy and accessibility.10,11 Through these efforts, GSK has developed vaccines with improved effectiveness and broader applicability.

Johnson & Johnson's Health Visionary Strategist

Macaya Douoguih, MD, MPH, who serves as the Head of Clinical Development and Medical Affairs for Vaccines, has played a crucial role in the development of key vaccines at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a branch of Johnson & Johnson, particularly in the advancement and global distribution of the company’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine. Her leadership in the clinical development phase was crucial, particularly in optimizing the vaccine's efficacy trials and ensuring its swift distribution during the pandemic, which was essential for its emergency use authorization by regulatory bodies worldwide.12

Additionally, Douoguih's contributions extend to other critical vaccine developments, such as vaccines for Ebola and HIV. She led efforts in conducting essential clinical trials for an Ebola vaccine that was utilized during outbreaks in Africa, providing crucial data that helped shape public health responses and vaccination strategies in outbreak-prone regions.13

Douoguih is involved in the clinical development of an investigational HIV vaccine at Johnson & Johnson, prioritizing inclusivity in the process. Her work specifically focuses on ensuring the vaccine’s effectiveness for highly impacted communities, including Black and Brown populations and women. Her work aims to ensure that the investigational HIV vaccine addresses the needs of those most burdened by HIV transmission.14

Douoguih has constantly demonstrated a deep commitment to addressing health disparities, particularly in the realm of vaccination. She has been a vocal advocate for inclusivity in clinical research, ensuring that vaccine development benefits all sections of society, especially those traditionally underserved. As a leading woman in the field of vaccine development, Douoguih embodies the essence of progress and innovation. And as she aptly puts it, "You’re going to see more and more women driving innovation. And this will mean more and more groundbreaking discoveries."15


Each of these women not only leads with strategic vision and scientific expertise but also inspires a new generation of women in pharmacy and biotechnology. Their achievements are not just personal triumphs but milestones that mark the beginning of a new era for a more inclusive, effective, and compassionate health care system. They are not just shaping their companies; they are shaping the future of global health. By upholding the highest standards of excellence and accountability, they build trust and confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccines worldwide.

1. How Pfizer’s Women Leaders Are Breaking Barriers in Vaccine Science. Pfizer Investor Insights. October 12, 2023. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://insights.pfizer.com/women-leaders/
2. Kampmann B, Madhi SA, Munjal I, et al. Bivalent Prefusion F Vaccine in Pregnancy to Prevent RSV Illness in Infants. New Engl J Medicine. 2023;388(16). doi:10.1056/nejmoa2216480
3. Alejandra Gurtman, MD. Society for Women’s Health Research. March 11, 2022. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://swhr.org/our-team/alejandra-gurtman-md/
4. Kena Swanson. Biotechnology Innovation Organization. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.bio.org/events/bio-international-convention/speakers/1980964
5. Next-Gen Scientific Changemakers: An Infectious Disease Specialist on a Mission to Develop Vaccines. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://www.pfizer.com/news/articles/nextgen-infectious-disease-specialist-mission-develop-vaccines
6. Silberner J. Merck Hires Ex-CDC Chief Gerberding To Run Vaccines Unit. NPR. December 21, 2009. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2009/12/merck_hires_gerberding_to_run.html
7. Gulland A. Ebola vaccine will be made available for emergency use. BMJ. 2016;352:i386. doi:10.1136/bmj.i386
8. Berkley S. We finally have a life-saving vaccine for Ebola. World Economic Forum. May 31, 2018. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/05/gavi-life-saving-vaccine-ebola-rVSV-ZEBOV/
9. Julie Louise Gerberding, MD, MPH. Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE). Accessed April 21, 2024. https://chibe.upenn.edu/expert/julie-louise-gerberding-md-mph/
10. CNBC Transcript: GSK CEO Emma Walmsley Speaks with CNBC’s Jim Cramer Live During CNBC’s Healthy Returns Summit Today. CNBC. March 29, 2023. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/29/cnbc-transcript-gsk-ceo-emma-walmsley-speaks-with-cnbcs-jim-cramer-live-during-cnbcs-healthy-returns-summit-today.html
11. GSK poaches new vaccines head from Pfizer in renewed focus on mRNA, RSV. S&P Global. November 30, 2021. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news-headlines/gsk-poaches-new-vaccines-head-from-pfizer-in-renewed-focus-on-mrna-rsv-67868863
12. Medical researcher Dr. Macaya Douoguih is a global leader in vaccine development. Welcome to World Woman Foundation. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.worldwomanfoundation.com/news/medical-researcher-dr-macaya-douoguih-is-a-global-leader-in-vaccine-development/
13. Ebola: The fight continues four years after the worst outbreak in history. Johnson & Johnson. March 28, 2018. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.jnj.com/innovation/one-janssen-employee-shares-why-the-fight-continues-to-find-an-ebola-vaccine
14. An open letter from Macaya Douoguih, M.D., M.P.H., on systemic racism and health disparities. Johnson & Johnson. July 8, 2020. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.jnj.com/our-company/an-open-letter-from-macaya-douoguih-md-mph-on-systemic-racism-and-health-disparities
15. Medical researcher Dr. Macaya Douoguih is a global leader in vaccine development. World Woman News. March 29, 2022. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://worldwomannews.com/dr-macaya-douoguih-johnson-johnson/
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