Kathrin Jansen, the vaccine researcher who led Pfizer’s collaboration with BioNTech to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, will retire later this year, the company said.
“Throughout my lifetime I’ve had the pleasure of knowing remarkable scientists, yet there are few who have made as deep and wide a contribution to human health as Kathrin,” said Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer and research chief, in a post on LinkedIn announcing Jansen’s retirement. “Through her commitment to excellence and tenacity, and the vaccines that she has helped develop over her illustrious career, Kathrin has touched the lives of billions of people across all ages.”
Jansen was also a key figure in efforts at Merck to develop Gardasil, the vaccine against the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical and head-and-neck cancer. At Pfizer, where she had worked since 2009, she led the development of the company’s Prevnar vaccines against pneumococcus bacteria and research efforts against bugs as varied as C. difficile and the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. She is also a member of the 2022 STATUS List.
“She is fearless at taking on any project that she thinks is important, and is not afraid to plunge in and figure out what needs to be done,” Edward Scolnick, the former head of research and development at Merck, told STAT in 2020. “In industry, that is not always the case, because many projects fail and people in that setting worry about their job. Whether they’ll be demoted, fired, passed over. She just doesn’t think about that.”
Jansen was born in East Germany, but her family fled to West Germany shortly before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. “I cannot imagine what the future would have been if that decision would not have been made,” she has said.
She earned a Ph.D. at Philipps-University in Marburg, and worked first at an institute associated with Glaxo Wellcome and then, starting in 1992, at Merck. At the time, vaccine development had fallen into disfavor as the pharmaceutical industry was starting to see a crop of blockbuster pills for common diseases. But Jansen became obsessed with the HPV vaccine project. She convinced Scolnick, but the company’s business side and other scientists were frequently skeptical. One scientist cornered her in a hallway and started yelling at her.
The first version of Gardasil was approved in the U.S. in 2006. The vaccine is now one of Merck’s top products, and is seen as a cornerstone of public health.
Jansen left Merck in 2004 for Vaxgen, which was developing an anthrax vaccine. That project failed but she was hired by her previous Merck boss, who had moved to Wyeth, in 2006. She took over the Prevnar program, and Wyeth was then bought by Pfizer in 2009.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Jansen was already connected with Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech. The companies were developing an influenza vaccine together. She didn’t hesitate when he said that he thought BioNTech’s technology could be used to target the novel coronavirus, too.
Pfizer then executed amazingly well. Studies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were started after those for Moderna’s vaccine, but final results were delivered first. It also was the first vaccine to be authorized for most age groups, and there were few hiccups in the development program until the two-dose version of the vaccine proved less effective than expected for children under 5.
The record development was a crowning achievement for one of the industry’s top vaccine executives. Creating vaccines requires “incredible passion, personal sacrifice, hard work, absolute dedication and teamwork,” Jansen once wrote. “Nothing is more inspiring than past success to take on the challenges posed by other vaccine-preventable diseases.”