Making vaccines is so satisfying as to be addictive, Jansen has joked. For her, first it was a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), then pneumonia. Now, not only can she add a Covid-19 vaccine to that list, last year the FDA approved an even more powerful version of the pneumonia vaccine. Safe to say, Jansen’s work has helped save millions of lives already and will likely help millions more.
As head of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid effort, Jansen supervised development of the first vaccine authorized for emergency use by the FDA in December 2020. The race to develop the vaccine, later approved as Comirnaty, involved day-and-night Zoom meetings with hundreds of people, which Jansen managed from her New York City apartment.
Jansen has long had a thing for vaccines. Creating them requires “incredible passion, personal sacrifice, hard work, absolute dedication and teamwork,” she once wrote. “Nothing is more inspiring than past success to take on the challenges posed by other vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Jansen was born in East Germany, but moved to West Germany at age 2. Even as a child she exhibited a keen interest in the natural world, and a tendency to “bring home all kinds of creatures,” she has recalled. As a young scientist at Merck, she focused on a vaccine against HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer. Her colleagues gave the work a 10% chance of success, but Jansen persevered. Gardasil, approved by the FDA in 2006, is 100% effective against HPV.
Jansen joined Wyeth (since acquired by Pfizer) in 2006 to help move more vaccines forward — including the pneumonia vaccine Prevnar 13, which gained FDA approval in 2010. Pre-Covid, she had been working on a successor vaccine aimed at protecting against 20 different strains of pneumonia-causing bacteria. That new vaccine, Prevnar 20, was approved by the FDA in June 2021.
“I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but in those days, girls were supposed to be housewives, not scientists. Not me,” she said in a 2020 video. “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”