Report: Spanish women lead the charge against Covid-19
Drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests are being developed by women in the biotechnology sector, who make up nearly 60% of all R&D staff
In the photo: Claudia Jiménez (Algenex), Belén Sopesén (Pharmamar) y Larraitz Añorga (BIOLAN HEALTH)
Exactly one year ago, we were struggling to figure out how to manage a pandemic that had thrown biotechnology into the spotlight. Now, on March 8, 2021, we want to remember that there were many women leading companies and R&D projects to fight Covid-19, which was spreading at an alarming rate. “It’s been a hard year,” some of them tell us, but even so, they’ve brought products to market, opened a new factory or secured investment, among other things.
In one year, the number of women in R&D activities went from nearly 4,700 to 5,385, a 15% increase to make up 58% of all R&D personnel. Plus, each year we have more female researchers in the biotechnology sector: in 2018, there were just over 2,500 women doing research and in 2019, it was 3,033. This is a 21% increase, to 56% of all research staff.
At least 45 AseBio member companies are working every day on this race against the clock and 10 are led by women. One of them is Claudia Jiménez, who has been in the biotech sector for over 15 years and is now general manager of Algenex, a company that produces proteins for vaccines on a large scale, using the chrysalides of cabbage moths as natural bioreactors and production tools. Claudia’s team, which is 70% female, has built a new factory in just five months in the middle of a pandemic, completed a round of funding and attracted international companies. “We’re becoming an international supplier of proteins for any sort of vaccine for human or veterinary use,” this expert comments. “It was all done remotely. It was crazy,” she adds. Claudia remembers this past year as very hard but very exciting at the same time because they achieved a lot thanks to the team’s coordination and collaboration.
The most complicated part of the Algenex project is to make people understand that the idea is acceptable and has been done before. “Our proposal is highly disruptive. People can’t envision it and they always worry about regulatory issues, whether the moths are going to die, whether it can really be purified and what happens to the insects if we go bankrupt... We have to educate people and companies every day to make them understand that this is possible,” she notes. Virbac, a company that specializes in animal health and wellbeing, has signed a deal with them to develop and manufacture a porcine vaccine, so it looks like things are heading in the right direction for Algenex. “They’ve made a commitment to our technology and that’s just the beginning,” Claudia concludes.
For her part, Larraitz Añorga, CEO of BIOLAN HEALTH, a company that develops, manufactures and commercializes high-precision in vitro diagnostic devices, also highlights the importance of her team. A team that is 80% women, mostly doctors and scientists, and there are three women leading the company’s projects. In under a year, they have transformed their prototype into a product that has hit the market in recent weeks: a test that can detect neutralizing antibodies, a crucial tool for analyzing the evolution of the virus and efficacy of the vaccines. “It has all been thanks to hard work and believing in ourselves,” highlights the CEO.
To tackle a global pandemic, in the middle of a race against the clock, one of the keys to BIOLAN HEALTH’s success has been to listen and communicate with the whole team because, as they say, “there’s always someone with an idea or a reason.” “I don’t spend a lot of time in the lab, but I like to go there because I get a better understanding of the problems and can help contribute solutions. Our day-to-day is about thinking up new technology and innovations that can contribute to the future so that we aren’t left behind in a few years. We also have to know our potential competitors and how to sell ourselves,” Larraitz explains. Her biggest concern over this past pandemic year has been time. The team was afraid they’d be too late in reaching the market and that it wouldn’t make any sense. “We were under a lot of pressure in that regard, fear that things wouldn’t turn out,” she recognizes.
Belén Sopesén has also felt the pressure in her day-to-day as director of the Virology Business Unit at Pharmamar, where she has worked for the past 15 years. This pharmaceutical company has managed to redirect a project in just months and launch a phase III clinical trial to show that the drug plitidepsin has an impact on covid-19. “It has been the culmination. We had something marvelous,” she explains. But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing in a sector where everything takes place in a competitive and complex network of approvals, trials and worries. Will we finish in time? Will it be reliable? These have been a leitmotif at many companies that are leading the fight against this disease.
The director’s day-to-day life is nothing like it was before: “The strange thing has been doing what we know how to do, which is developing drugs, but in a totally different way, with tight deadlines and without the usual planning. We’ve been on an obstacle course and had to think clearly and quickly every day as new information came pouring in. With each new piece of data, we had to think about our next step and the right one.” The takeaway from this race is pushing yourself. “We’ve all worked together,” she explains. She believes the future is promising because humanity has thought collectively and worked on a global level towards the same goal. “We’ve seen collaboration among societies and companies because the world required it of us. There are things that separate us, but here we’ve come together. And we shouldn’t take a step back now,” she concludes.
In short, the pharmaceutical industry “has managed to reinvent itself,” as Belén says. The women interviewed ask that we get to work, using science, and keep pushing forward, which “is our raison d’être”.
By Agathe Cortes