LEADING FROM THE FRONT
Bio Spectrum|March 2021
The International Women’s Day theme for 2021, celebrated on March 8 every year, is #ChooseToChallenge, which highlights the importance of challenging biases and misconceptions in the interest of creating a more inclusive and gender-equal world.
Dr Manbeena Chawla

At the same time, the United Nations (UN) has issued a 2021 theme: Women in leadership- Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world. The UN’s 2021 theme celebrates efforts from girls and women in creating a more equal future and COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

It is also aligned with the priority theme of the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women that says- ‘Women’s full and effective participation and decision making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’, and the flagship Generation Equality campaign, which calls for women’s right to decision making in all areas of life, equal pay, equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work, an end all forms of violence against women and girls, and healthcare services that respond to their needs.

Women across the globe are standing at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, as healthcare workers, caregivers, innovators, community organizers, business leaders and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic. The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.

Women leaders and workers have demonstrated their skills, knowledge and networks to effectively lead in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts throughout 2020. Today, there is more acceptance than ever before that women bring different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make irreplaceable contributions to decisions, policies and laws that work better for all.

The majority of the countries that have been more successful in stemming the tide of the pandemic and responding to its health and broader socioeconomic impacts, are headed by women. For instance, countries such as Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia, led by women in the government, have been widely recognized for the rapidity, decisiveness and effectiveness of their national response to COVID-19, as well as the compassionate communication of factbased public health information.

According to a recent study published in the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, countries with women leaders at the helm seem to have handled the coronavirus pandemic significantly better than their male counterparts. The study, carried out by the UK-based University of Liverpool and the University of Reading, revealed that agile policy measures in the initial three months of the pandemic in female-led countries saved nearly two times more lives than those run by male leaders despite having similar numbers of cases.

Moreover, an important facet the study highlighted is the fact that women were less willing to take risks with lives and imposed a nationwide lockdown significantly earlier than male leaders. Concurrently, they were more willing to take risks in the domain of the economy.

In almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances. While this may have longer-term economic implications, it has certainly helped these countries to save lives, as evidenced by the significantly lower number of deaths in these countries.

Another major development was seen around November 2020 when Kamala Harris got elected as the Vice President of the United States, as the first black woman and the first person of Indian descent nominated for national office by a major party and only the fourth woman on a presidential ticket.

Likewise, India has a history of electing female leaders to top positions. India’s Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs and President of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) are women. Also, Indian women, such as the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are providing crucial leadership in the global arena during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, on the other hand, the scenario in India is not that bright. India slipped to the 112th spot from its 108th position in 2018 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, which covered 153 economies. Although India ranks 18th in the Political Empowerment category, the positions in other subindices such as Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, and Health and Survival are still low. There is still a 31.4 per cent average gender gap that remains to be closed globally.

Nevertheless, at present, a large number of women across India are excelling in their respective fields such as pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, clinical research, biotechnology and rising as exemplary figures while putting their best efforts in the fight the COVID-19 pandemic. On the frontline of the pandemic, with their courage and determination, these women are inspiring countless people.

BioSpectrum brings to 11 Indian women achievers in the life sciences sector who are making us proud by leading the fight against COVID-19.

SUCHITRA ELLA,

» Joint Managing Director,

» Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad

“THE PRESSURE WAS ALL MULTI-FOLD BUT LITTLE DID WE SUCCUMB TO IT”

While India is being projected as the world’s second-largest COVID-19 vaccine maker, Hyderabad based Bharat Biotech, co-founded by Suchitra Ella and her husband Dr Krishna Ella, is expanding its annual capacities to deliver 700 million doses of COVAXIN, India’s first vaccine candidate for COVID-19, developed in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) - National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune.

Coming across as a significant landmark in India’s scientific discovery and capability, the approval of COVAXIN for emergency use is being considered as a giant leap for innovation and novel product development in India. But this journey of COVID-19 vaccine development has been an arduous task for Suchitra Ella and her team throughout 2020, and continues to be so.

“The lockdown did make us re-organise ourselves in 4 shifts to maintain all precautions of the pandemic environment around us. I chose to work full time at the campus in Genome Valley. I had a huge responsibility on my shoulders to empathise, listen, share, and support all our employees/family’s, mentally & physically”, recalls Suchitra.

It was all the more tough for her when controversies started swirling around India’s homegrown COVID-19 vaccine, right after the government’s approval. Adding to her tension has been the recent observation that less number of people are coming forward for the vaccine shots, probably based on the hasty approval of the product, which is still in phase III trials.

Despite all the questions and pressure around her, Suchitra stands strong and says, “We had manufactured the H1N1 vaccine back in 2009. We knew to place our teams for the different stages from inactivating the virus, passing through animal testing, conducting extensive human trials for safety, immunogenicity & efficacy through lockdowns, scaling up BSL-3 production suites, QC, QA testing, procuring reagents, material & equipment installations & ensuring distribution of all our vaccines which is not taught in textbooks nor is written in SOPs.”

For a product yet to complete the phase III clinical trials where approximately 26000 participants have volunteered, she took the risk and started producing the vaccine doses for the country for the COVID-19 vaccination programme rolled out on January 16, knowing that it will be an uphill task. 5.5 million doses of COVAXIN vaccine were procured by the government out of which 1.65 million doses were rolled out free of cost.

“COVAXIN has been evaluated in approximately 1000 subjects in Phase I and Phase II clinical trials, with promising safety and immunogenicity results, with acceptance in international peer reviewed scientific journals”, Suchitra points out.

Building upon the promising safety and immunogenicity data in the Phase I and Phase II trials, her team is in the process of codeveloping the vaccine product with Ocugen for the US market. Alongside, Suchitra is working with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and FluGen in the US for testing of a unique vaccine against COVID-19 called CoroFlu that will be delivered intranasally. The company is also pursuing a COVID-19 vaccine candidate with US based Thomas Jefferson University.

“We endured daily rigorous 12-15 hour ‘battles’ to get to the next day, with composure, courage & confidence to continue. The pressure was all multi-fold, at home and work, both to be preserved, but little did we succumb to it. It is the biggest life experience in itself, an honour to stand tall, converting challenges into an opportunity to develop a safe & efficacious vaccine to prevent the infection & preserve public health for India & the world at large”, she adds.

PRATIBHA KUMARI RAI

» Manager-Engineering Systems & Solutions, Peenya Site

» Merck, Bengaluru

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