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Women take the lead in vaccine development

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The early history of vaccines is a male-dominated field. The science, which is currently showing spectacular results, is now led by women. Therein lies a lesson about the allocation of talent.

Consider the history of the mRNA vaccine, which is the technological basis of both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, the two leading vaccine contenders for the U.S. To oversimplify, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune system response, rather than injecting live or dead virus material.

If done properly, that makes the vaccine quicker to develop, safer to use, and easier to manufacture at scale. In addition to its forthcoming role in fighting COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine platform can probably be adapted to fight other viruses, and other mRNA products may have additional uses, such as helping to treat skin disorders.

The core work behind the mRNA approach comes from Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian-born émigré who came to the U.S. to work on RNA-related issues. Her career had its fits and starts, including problems with raising research money and a bout with cancer, but she persisted. She ended up working with Drew Weissman, and they figured out how to inject RNA material into humans without causing excess inflammation, which previously had been the critical barrier to making progress.

Karikó ended up working with BioNTech, a German start-up founded by Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, a husband-and-wife team whose parents were Turkish guest workers in Germany.

Then there is the vaccine from Novovax, based in Gaithersburg, Md. The Novovax results are not yet published, but early word is that they are very promising. This vaccine also is based on new ideas, using an unusual moth cell system to crank out proteins in a highly innovative manner.

Novovax's team is led by Nita Patel, an immigrant from Gujarat, India. Her vaccine team is identified as "all-female." Patel is from a very poor family; when she was 4 her father almost died of tuberculosis, and she often had to beg for bus fare.

The common theme here is one of outsiders, as women and immigrants have been prominent at crucial points. Phase One of Moderna's trial, for example was led by Lisa Jackson at the University of Washington. Moderna's co-founder and chairman, Noubar Afeyan, is a two-time immigrant: Born in Lebanon, his parents later migrated to Canada and then he moved to the U.S.

The swift development of all these vaccines could end up being the biggest scientific advance in decades — and it has been driven by people who, in another era, never would have had a chance.

This is a positive development, a sobering truth — and a warning about the future. In business, academia and other fields of science, women do not have roles nearly as prominent as they do right now in vaccine development. Given what women have contributed to vaccines just this year, think what kind of impact they could have in other areas.

The argument is not that women and men will achieve the exact same outcomes. There may well be reasons that talented women are drawn more to vaccine development than to other areas. Still, the recent and unprecedented impact of women in this field means that there are other endeavors which society cares about that would greatly benefit from more involvement by women.

The story of vaccines in the 21st century shows two things. The first is that society could still do a much better job at allocating talent, and reap similar gains across a broader variety of areas. The second is that it is possible to remedy talent misallocations, if we are willing to take the necessary steps.

If you are looking for something hopeful amid the millions of tragic COVID experiences, that's not a bad place to start.

Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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