Hanneke Schuitemaker, PhD, used to think of herself as a good sleeper. But lately, she’s been losing some shuteye. That’s because she’s part of a team of scientists and researchers that’s racing against the clock to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, at a time when over 166,000 are dying globally from the disease.
Globally, there are as many as 115 coronavirus vaccines in development, though just 78 are officially confirmed as active candidates, according to the journal Nature Reviews Drug Discovery. Three of these are being tested on humans. Schuitemaker, the vice president and global head of viral vaccine discovery and translational medicine at Johnson & Johnson, is helping create one of them.
Since January, her team has been working hard to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine. If all goes well, it could be available for emergency use by early 2021. It’s backed with $1 billion USD of funding from Johnson & Johnson and the Biomedical Advanced Candidate and Development Authority (BARDA).
Schuitemaker’s team has already identified one vaccine formulation and two back up options that are especially promising. They’re developing their first choice on an accelerated timeline, hoping to start their first human trial for the vaccine in September.
Her work keeps her hopeful and motivated — but the long hours and pressure to create an effective vaccine quickly can also take a toll on her mental health. We asked Schuitemaker about her process, and how she de-stresses knowing that thousands of lives are potentially at stake.
Refinery29: What’s a day in your life look like right now?
Hanneke Schuitmaker: “Well, with working from home and social distancing, it's sort of a blurry timeline for me. I try to get up early in the mornings. The alarm is set for 6:30 a.m., I start work at 7:45 and finish in the evening at 9 or 10 p.m. I do stop occasionally to eat dinner with my family and walk my dog. I cannot say that the hours I spend working on this vaccine are normal. They add up to be a lot because there's so many things happening in parallel. While I’m working from home, I do a lot of virtual meetings with my team, with sub teams, and with management to coordinate, to discuss our lab results, and to make decisions.”
Is everyone on your team working on the vaccine from home?
“In the beginning, it seemed like I was the only one working from home and everybody else was in the lab, which is located in Leiden in The Netherlands. Now that we have the video conferencing, you can see everybody working from home, apart from the people who are doing the lab work.
“In the labs, we are very strict about social distancing, really avoiding any risks for our employees, but [these are] tough circumstances to work in. But I have never seen a more motivated team than the team that is currently dealing with the COVID-19 vaccine from our company. It's really amazing. This is a historic period in our lives.”
“We have very few people on site, and we also have a back up team. That’s in case somebody would become ill, because then, of course, we’d have to put the whole first team in quarantine.
“We’re asking the people going into the lab to document what they’re doing and take pictures of each other. It’s important to remember this unprecedented time. Someday we will
probably find it difficult to imagine that we worked like this and managed so much. Of course, they have a lot of work to accomplish, but I think it's also nice, too, for them that they realize that we are with them, and that we want to see how it was to work in the lab under these circumstances.”
Tell us more about your role in developing this vaccine.
“So, my organization is now responsible for the initial design of our vaccine. Our scientists started to look at the coronavirus sequence in January. We already have a glimpse of how it’s going to perform in several animal models, and I’m working with another team on how we are going to take this research and use it to vaccinate people. We are planning to do our first human shots as part of a trial in the beginning of September.
“There are a lot of things running in parallel. I'm doing the oversight of all this. I'm the link between what we are doing in lab discovery now, and how we are going to translate that to the studies that we want to do looking into our vaccine's effect on humans.”
I know that you previously worked on therapeutic vaccine candidates for diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Zika, and HPV. How did you get into this field, and how that work has translated for you into working on a COVID-19 vaccine?
“I had an academic career really studying HIV and why people get ill from it, and what the interactions are between the virus and the patient. Then I realized that I wanted to do something that had application. So I moved to the vaccine industry.
“With that move, I could also expand from studying one virus to studying multiple viruses. So I continued to work on HIV. We have so many HIV vaccine candidates in the pipeline. But I also worked on an Ebola vaccine. That one we worked on under completely different circumstances because — yes, there was an outbreak, and it was really serious and we were on a really tight timeline, but it was different because we were not suffering ourselves from the Ebola outbreak.”
“Still, we worked day and night to get it out. But now to be involved in this vaccine work for COVID-19, where we are also suffering the day-to-day consequences of the pandemic, it's a completely new experience. I feel privileged to be part of this and to, indeed, work on something that is so needed. Hopefully we can make something that is helpful and that can be applied soon.”
How is the timeline different from the Ebola vaccine you worked on?
“Because normally the process [of developing a vaccine] would be maybe two to three years, if not longer. And now we will have to complete it all in the eight months, which is a new experience. Normally you have more time to think twice. And it's not that the quality of our work goes down, but it really takes our continuous attention and focus. I also need to constantly challenge the team’s competency. Who’s doing this? Why can't you work faster? Why do we need this? So it's a completely new way of working.
“But I feel privileged to work with a team with such excellent and superb scientists. That really gives me the feeling that we may be successful. And I really need to emphasize 'may be' because you never know in vaccine work. So far, it has been an amazing journey.”
You guys are all working so hard and putting so much into it, yet there’s a fair chance that it won't work because it hasn’t been done before. How do you deal with the pressure that comes with those odds and unknowns?
“Well, I can’t be distracted by that too much, right? Because then it would affect the quality of my work. Of course, I have thought about it. I really try not to make the success of this work personal, so it doesn’t feel like personal failure. And I really think that if we fail here, that doesn't mean that we will fail in other programs. As such, I can deal with the pressure. Because I know we have done all we could.
“Still, I am not restricted by those sentiments because I really need to believe that it will work in order to give my best for this program."
How do you deal with the sense of urgency to get this vaccine out in the current climate?
“I have lost some nights of sleep. Normally, I sleep well, but I have to take big positions like, ‘We will proceed with this course of action over this one.’ And I need to put pressure on people. But I work with such a great team, that, even under these conditions, there is always support there.
“Still, you’re right that we have no time to lose. And we have to make sure that we still deliver the highest quality, the highest safety, with no cutting corners.”
What do you do when you’re not working to keep yourself in a good place mentally?
“I have a Labrador, so he keeps me also on a schedule of taking long walks three times a day. We have our family dinner in the evening and Ethan, one of my sons, gets up for breakfast with me. So, I do have these structures. In normal life, I'm travelling a lot. I’m often on the go and now I am, of course, homebound. But that gives me some sort of peace. Under these circumstances, it's actually really good to be focused, to be in one spot. Right now, I have time to think, to sit, to walk. But I do still have a lot of working hours, that's inevitable.”
I think a lot of us are thinking about and talking about the pandemic all the time. And when you work in a coronavirus-focused field, I’m sure it can be like there’s no escape. How do you take a break from thinking about COVID-19?
“I'm completely human, and so I also watch Netflix. I watched La Casa De Papel yesterday. But yeah. It's a lot of corona news, of course. One side effect of this is that it seems nothing else is happening in the world. Everything is related to this pandemic, but that also gives us structure in a way, right? The world has really come to a stop on all the other issues that were happening before. There are no other things to worry about at the moment, which isn’t quite peace of mind, but is something. I really think that all these governments are making the right decisions based on their knowledge and experience available at the time.”
We have no time to lose.
I know that there are about 78 official vaccines in the works right now worldwide. How is yours different?
“So our vaccine is based on the platform that we have been using for our Ebola vaccine and our HIV vaccine candidate. It’s based on a common cold virus. We have removed the piece of the genetic material of the cold virus to also create room for genetic material from another virus. In this case, the coronavirus. And we produce these common cold viral particles with that little piece of genetic material of the coronavirus in them. In the end they will get injected, and then the body [will hopefully create an immune response].
“The company has decided to start manufacturing this vaccine. So even before we know whether our vaccine works, we will already have started large-scale manufacturing, so it’s available for the world if it does work. If it doesn’t, then, of course, we made it for nothing. But we’re still going to start producing it, so that, in case it works, we have something to give.”
Are you testing it on rats right now?
“We are testing it in animals, on mice. The thing is that with this disease, we know so little. So we’ve set up what we call “animal models,” where we can also expose the animals to the virus after vaccination to see whether [the vaccine] provides protective immunity.
“But there's a lot of discussion ongoing on how much of that work is needed before you go into testing it on humans. And that is, I think, a good discussion to constantly have because we want to go fast. And of course we do not want to put people at risk..”
What does success look like for you right now?
“I think success looks like having great antibody side effects that neutralize the virus — and not only in healthy adults, but also in the elderly. Because it would be really amazing if we can make a vaccine for all populations. The biggest success is if we can apply our vaccine in the population to really stop this outbreak so we can get back to a new normal.”
What’s been one of your biggest challenges so far?
“So far the biggest challenge was to choose the lead vaccine candidate. We started with around 10 vaccine constructs, but we had to make a decision because we’re progressing on a very rapid timeline. Preclinical testing of our vaccine constructs in animals helped us to identify the vaccine candidates with the most promise. In addition, we thought about the manufacturability of the vaccine candidates as an important selection criterion. This is because we anticipate the production of billions of doses if it demonstrates that it could effectively protect people from COVID-19.”
What are you going to do when this is all over and you hopefully have a very successful vaccine?
“If we have a successful vaccine and if I have been vaccinated myself, I’ll probably go for two weeks to the Alps to hike and to climb the mountains. And then, of course, we’re also working on something that's already had a serious urgency to it for 55 years, HIV. I really hope that also that vaccine program can continue and that we will see success there, too.”
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.