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The ultimate work-at-home assignment: Create a vaccine to stop the COVID-19 pandemic


(WASHINGTON) — In late March and early April, as the coronavirus spread across the country and the world, tens of millions of people were under instructions to “shelter in place” or “stay at home,” including thousands of researchers, scientists, and supply chain executives who were working around the clock on the greatest medical challenge in history: to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year.

And they were doing it from their homes.

Here are the first-person accounts.

Professor Hanneke Schuitemaker, global head of viral vaccine discovery, Johnson & Johnson

Schuitemaker is a single mother of three who lives in Leiden, Netherlands. Her Ebola vaccine was approved for use in Europe in July. If Johnson & Johnson’s COVID vaccine is approved, it will be her second vaccine in a year.

“We zoom from early morning, till late in the evening … the biggest challenge was so much pressure — everybody looking over your shoulder on how fast things are going.

I like that I can spend more time at home also with my children. I have dinner with my son and I walk my dog. These midday and evening moments are precious and give me time to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish.

Every time we pass a certain magical number, you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I never had expected it to become this bad.’ It’s horrible but it’s also really motivating to go that extra mile again and again and again to get that vaccine out.”

Tanya Alcorn, global supply chain vice president, Pfizer BioPharma

I have three young children … I personally had to take over my kids’ basement and then at the same time managing the three kids who all of a sudden had to go remote. My husband and I work.

I always say if I can manage the logistics for three kids in three different schools under a pandemic, I can manage distribution of a vaccine.”

Remo Colarusso, vice president, Janssen Supply Chain, Johnson & Johnson

“I got a call from my boss who runs the entire supply chain of Johnson & Johnson, and she said, ‘Hey, we need to supply a billion doses. I need you to get on that.’ And I’ll never forget getting that call.

You’re so motivated to make a difference that it doesn’t matter what day it is. All that matters is that people are waiting. But when it hits you personally by someone you love, it becomes very personal. I have an elderly mom and I lost my mom. She was in a nursing home. And that was very, very tough.

It just reaffirmed, you know, my commitment to getting this vaccine so we can stop that kind of thing from happening.”

Dr. Özlem Türeci, chief medical officer and co-founder, BioNTech

Based in Mainz, Germany, Dr. Tureci and her husband, Dr. Ugur Sahin, partnered with Pfizer on the vaccine.

“We saw the pandemic as a challenge for entire humanity. And we saw our duty in not just continuing to conduct what our company normally conducts — namely cancer vaccine trials — but to contribute to the most imminent, most urgent, most important challenge that humanity has.

It was really amazing how even though everything was shut down, people found ways to ship things around, to meet, to talk, to strategize together.

We learned, as a family, basically at a weekend, about the [efficacy] results — 95% — and this was something which first paralyzed us. We were really afraid and proud, and it took us some time to understand what this really means. We jumped up and down definitely and hugged each other and then, started to calm down again and celebrated with tea, because we needed something invigorating at that moment.”

Hamilton Bennett, senior director of vaccine access and partnerships, Moderna

“March was a transition period. By the middle of the month, we were in lockdown. And for those of us that were working on the program, it was business as usual. We had to keep moving. We had to find this new way of working.

How do we keep moving this program forward in this new normal of daily, you know, video conferencing and 12 hours a day of meetings and staring at a computer screen and never seeing your team members face-to-face anymore?

All of our calendars are scheduled for 12 hours a day. We’ve really had to learn to work differently.”

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