This year, more than ever, scientists are in the spotlight as the global scientific community is struggling to find a vaccine to attack COVID-19. These unprecedented efforts to create a safe and efficient vaccine are yielding very positive results. In recent weeks, three drug companies – Modern, Pfizer and AstraZeneca – reported high rates of efficiency in the first studies of their vaccines, and now it is possible that one of them will be available before the end of the year. The next big question is whether enough people will accept being vaccinated.
Vaccines typically take years to develop, so it is understood that people are concerned about applying something that was discovered just a few months ago. These concerns are widening due to the increasingly powerful anti-vaccine movement that uses social media platforms to share often unsubstantiated views and conspiracy theories about the dangers of getting vaccinated.
A recent survey by the World Economic Forum and Ipsos found that if the COVID-19 vaccine were available, only 64% of Americans would get it, compared to 83% of the South Korean population. In France, meanwhile, confidence levels in the vaccine are currently very low: only 54% would agree. Indecision is such a serious concern that, with the support of the United Nations, scientists and doctors around the world working on the vaccine have joined forces under the umbrella of Team Halo.
This communication project is like a reunion of The Avengers, but in the world of science: it connects people of all levels who work in vaccine testing and development and encourages them to speak openly through social networks about the concerns around to the COVID-19 vaccine. They communicate primarily through TikTok, where leading scientists demystify the process using simple and accessible explanations for an engaged and rapidly growing audience. Anna Nolan, co-director of Team Halo, spoke on the importance of humanizing the scientists who are trying to create a solution: “[We need to put] a human face on the real people who work on vaccines.”
We spoke with women from the US, UK, South Africa, India and Brazil – all of whom are scientists connected through Team Halo – about the work they do and their personal experiences of the pandemic.
Galit Alter, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, USA
Galit Alter is as enthusiastic as she is impressive. “I’ve been chasing viruses since I started my career,” he says via Zoom. “I’ve always been following in the footsteps of these devastating pandemics, you just haven’t seen them.” Of course, COVID-19 has been impossible to avoid. ‘Look how this virus has changed the world. It has completely changed the way of doing science, ‘she adds. Alter is a world expert on antibodies and this year she has worked on her research. “I have worked 24 hours a day in science and, at the same time, I have tried to homeschool my [twin] daughters.” Her husband, a doctor who also works on vaccine testing for COVID-19, is quarantined at home, as his work at the hospital exposed him to the virus.
In recent months, the only time Alter left her home was to put her daughters in the back of the car and “transport samples of infected people from one laboratory to another.” She noticed a certain kind of return to normal in August, when the schools reopened. “I came back to life: for the first time in seven months, I took off my yoga pants.” As a professor and educator at Harvard University, Massachusetts, Alter has hope in the next generation, which she is educating. ‘My wishes for the young people are that they do something to give back to the world. That would be the most wonderful feeling: when you look back at your life and did something that really made a difference. ‘ Looking ahead, Alter sees positive things that could come out of the pandemic. ‘Maybe the coronavirus can create a whole new generation of virus hunters, like me.’
Matshidiso Sello And Dineo Thaele, Demographers, Infectious Diseases Analysis And Vaccines Research Unit, Wits University, South Africa
These two extraordinary women work at the heart of the community, researching vaccines and infectious diseases in the ghettos of Johannesburg, Soweto and Thembelihle. This year, much of your work has been fieldwork, helping people understand the importance of testing and reviews. The impact of COVID-19 on these communities is devastating, they note. There have been many deaths related to COVID; there are families that have lost their main financial supporter.
“People cannot go to work, they do not have access to education or training,” says Seal, via Zoom. And they have also been directly affected: Seal lost her sister and Thaele her mother to COVID-19. They both know that there is a constant risk of bringing the infection home. ‘It has been a difficult time. It has not been a good year, ‘says Seal. They are not just colleagues, they are friends. They study and work together, and when they have free time, they live together. Having each other has been invaluable. “During this time, everyone needs support, and we have been there for each other,” Thaele says. “We were able to carry the duel together.”
In reality, people in the communities where Thaele and Seal work could be much further behind the line for vaccines than those in richer countries, whose economic status puts them ahead. But the two analysts are optimistic and believe that the vaccine will be well received. “People are aware of the benefits of vaccines,” explains Seal. “Mothers have taken their children to be vaccinated and we have already lowered the mortality rate of children under five years of age.”
Dr Anna Blakney, Research Fellow, Imperial College London, UK
Dr. Blakney is an American working at Imperial College London on her possible vaccine against COVID-19. People from all over the world follow her work closely, both the scientific community and those closest to home. “When the crisis started, I sent a newsletter to my aunts, uncles and grandmother about COVID-19, and they forwarded it to everyone,” says Zoom.
In addition to being a scientist, Dr. Blakney can also add that she is a TikTok star to her CV. In just a few weeks, she has attracted 190,000 followers to her account where she uploads super creative, fun and informative content from her lab. “People come for the entertainment and hopefully stay for the science,” he says. Her approach seems to be working: One of her videos was viewed more than 11 million times in 24 hours. Dr. Blakney’s attitude when talking about science and vaccines is incredibly rational and realistic. ‘Many times we think of provaccines and anti-vaccines as binary; you are in favor of one or the other. But in reality, most people are in the middle. It is not us against them, it is an open conversation. ‘ With her rising status as a bona fide social media star and her status as an American in Europe, we asked her if she was some kind of Emily in Paris from the world of vaccination, “Well, I do speak English,” was her immediate response.
Dr Ruby Raphael, PhD of Medicine, Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad, India
Dr. Ruby Raphael is part of the vaccine testing team at the Institute of Medical Sciences in Nizam, South India, where she is currently completing her doctorate in medicine. “It’s as if science couldn’t even decipher the startup virus,” she says of the complexities and challenges of COVID-19. However, trying to figure out how to combat such a new disease ignited the scientific community in India. ‘Now everyone is learning, even doctors in their 60s or 70s. Everyone is trying to figure out exactly what is going on. ‘
Like all of us, Dr. Raphael has had a difficult year, especially since she was separated from her family, who live in Dubai. ‘Because of COVID, I don’t even go to my neighbors’ house. They are older and I could be an asymptomatic carrier. ‘ Dr. Raphael has found new ways to disconnect from work, like making TikTok videos and baking – she’s made a special cake to celebrate when each phase of the vaccine testing process is finished. She thought that maybe 2020 could be the year she gets married, but her time has been completely focused on work. “Social distancing, face masks and vaccines are the ways to stop this,” he adds.
Natália Pasternak, Author And Microbiologist, University Of São Paulo, Brazil
For Natália Pasternak, being known in Brazil, her native country, as a spokesperson for science is a more difficult role and more important than anything at the moment. The country is led by President Jair Bolsonaro, who is not only anti-science, but rather seems at war against it. “She speaks against the use of face masks and social distancing, she promotes miracle medicines, and that is why I speak against the government,” says Pasternak for Zoom. ‘It is not a political matter, it is a scientific matter. I am completely neutral in politics when it comes to work. ‘ Natália is an inspiring person whose love for science fiction became her life as a scientist. “Being a scientist is part of me,” she adds.
But being a woman in the world of science is not always easy. ‘It is much more difficult to talk about science if you are a woman. You hear a lot of unpleasant comments about your appearance, about your physique. Things they would never say about my male colleagues. ‘ When Pasternak became involved with Team Halo, she had to quickly delve into the world of TikTok, little known to her. ‘I don’t actually use Facebook or Instagram, so TikTok was a new universe for me. But one of my videos already has 100,000 views. Do you know how long it took my TED Talk to reach that number? ‘