Few people have led large-scale scientific research projects, and even fewer have spearheaded development of life-changing vaccines. Kathrin Jansen is one of those few who has made a mark in science and global healthcare. She initiated and led development of the world’s first vaccine for cervical cancer, Gardasil, and most recently, in her role at Pfizer, helped orchestrate the record-time creation of a Covid-19 vaccine. The secret behind her success is not only skill and laser focus, but a deep-rooted passion for healthcare and pharmaceuticals that stems from her childhood.
Jansen grew up in Germany and vividly remembers standing in line for the polio and smallpox vaccines, an interest in the medical field and a growing passion for vaccines. She later developed Gardasil and contributed to the Prevnar 13 and Trumenba vaccines, and is currently Senior Vice-President and Head of Vaccine Research and Development at Pfizer—the pharmaceutical company generating over $40 billion in revenue per year. Through it all, Jansen has seen triumphs and challenges, but she leads with strength and empowers herself and other women.
For nearly all of 2020, she and the teams at Pfizer and BioNTech were working on a vaccine to combat Covid-19, which has taken at least 2.5 million lives worldwide and carried repercussions of social isolation, a rise in unemployment and increasing gender inequality. Jansen’s years of experience in the industry and her leadership skills guided her in seeing this project through in just nine months and ensuring a seamless process. Previously the United States contracted with Pfizer to buy 200 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine for nearly $4 billion, and the company announced in February that the U.S. would purchase an additional 100 million doses to be delivered by July 2021.
While she was working at Merck Research Laboratories Jansen tackled the human papillomavirus and made the vaccinein genetically modified yeast. Gardasil proved successful and she moved on to Wyeth. There they needed her help to finalize Prevnar 13, which protects people from 13 strains of pneumococcus and reducing the rate of meningitis, bloodstream infections and pneumonia caused by the bacteria. Covid-19 caught the attention of Jansen and her team at Pfizer in January 2020 and from that point forward it was researching, strategizing, developing and testing a solution for what would become a global pandemic.
“When the Chinese published the sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus, which was in the early January timeframe, then it became very clear that there was probably something to worry about given the experience we had prior with outbreaks from other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS,” Jansen said.
BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin contacted them in February asking if they’d like to partner with them in developing a vaccine. They were already working closely with BioNTech on the seasonal influenza vaccine, so it made sense to team up and utilize the mRNA platform Jansen said, as it would offer “a very balanced and robust immune response.”
Jansen was well-versed in researching viruses and making vaccine development plans. “But that wasn’t good enough in this particular situation,” she said, citing the limited time. “Usually it takes 10 years from the beginning—you start your research and then you have a licensed vaccine, roughly. And here we had a year. That required a different way of thinking.”
Kathrin Jansen, Senior Vice-President and Head of Vaccine R&D, is based in New York.
They ran the trials simultaneously to ensure that all the steps—such as studies, manufacturing and scaling—ran parallel to each other rather than in sequential fashion. “That means that manufacturing and process development had to already work on scaling and building the facilities at a time where we had no clinical data,” Jansen said. “This is unheard of.”
Jansen led a team of hundreds of people, and analogized herself to an orchestra conductor. “It was not just the instruments that were played in my organization but it was everyone else. Everything had to come together pretty much from day one,” she said. “I hardly came out of my chair, being in teleconferences nonstop, talking to people, advising and working through the normal pitfalls that you have in development,” she said. “I mean, sometimes things just don’t work as advertised. You need to work through the problems, you need to look at data, data needs to get generated very quickly.” Jansen said putting her best people on key tasks and making sure each person was assigned to a task that they could manage and had the knowledge and experience for was important.
Jansen knew early on this industry was a natural fit for her. She graduated with a doctoral degree in microbiology, biochemistry and genetics from Phillips-Universitat in Germany, and completed postdoctoral work at Cornell University. Looking back to her childhood, she recalls how far the world has come in disease treatment and prevention. “We [as a society] eradicated smallpox, we almost eradicated polio, we could eradicate many more diseases,” she said.”
As a woman, Jansen is a minority in her field and throughout her career she has witnessed some discrimination against women in science. But she doesn’t let that hold her back, and instead uses her experiences to help lift up other women. “I was raised as a very independent person and I always went for what I wanted to do,” she said. “For me it was important to support female colleagues and make sure they have the opportunities, and you know, just look out for them.”
I am a journalist, author and lawyer who has written for CNN, Yahoo News, Teen Vogue, Thrive Global and Poosh. Before joining Forbes as a contributor, I worked on