She rose from rural poverty in India. Now, she’s buoying a crash effort to make a coronavirus vaccine.
Science‘s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation
Standing in front of reporters recently after showing Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) through the company’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, labs, Novavax CEO Stanley Erck touted everything from the company’s manufacturing plans to the long hours its scientists are logging. But he praised only one staffer by name: Nita Patel, a diminutive 56-year-old wearing jeans and a black mask. “Nita,” Erck said to the governor, “has done all the work that you saw today.”
Patel is a senior director in the vaccine development program at Novavax, a small firm among giant pharma companies racing to test a vaccine for the pandemic coronavirus (see main story, p. 649). Her all-female crew is an essential part of Novavax’s lab team. Their sophisticated tests verified that the heart of the company’s vaccine—its version of the virus’ spike protein—performed as it should in cells and generated virus-neutralizing antibodies in animals. “Nita is absolutely invaluable,” says her boss, chief scientist Gale Smith. “She’s a genius.”
Patel has come a long way from her beginnings in Sojitra, a farming village in India’s Gujarat state. There, when she was 4 years old, her family fell into poverty after her father nearly died from tuberculosis (TB). He never worked again and told Patel she should become a doctor and find a cure.
Patel set about doing that, wearing the same ragged dress to school day after day. She had no shoes. She begged bus fare from a neighbor—at whose house she also devoured the newspaper because her family couldn’t afford a subscription.
PHOTO: ALYSSA SCHUKAR
Her academic excellence propelled her through college on government scholarships. She later picked up two master’s degrees, in India and the United States, in applied microbiology and biotechnology. Her memory is photographic: When driving, she has to be careful not to look at license plate numbers, or she’ll memorize them.
Patel married a U.S. biochemist and then moved to Gaithersburg and started job hunting. One small company offered her less than others—but she would work on a TB project. In 1990, Patel became the 16th employee at MedImmune. One of her bosses there, Herren Wu, now a senior vice president at AstraZeneca, remembers her skill with a difficult assay that bedeviled others. “She was the one [whose data] I believed,” he says. “She’s a very good bench scientist.”
But Patel also understands setbacks: A MedImmune Lyme disease vaccine failed in its first clinical trial, and another therapy, against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), was rejected by the Food and Drug Administration. In 2015, attracted by Novavax’s RSV vaccine work, she jumped to the firm.
After Novavax got the gene for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in February, Patel’s team tested more than 20 engineered variants of the protein, identifying the version most likely to elicit a protective immune response. Now, she’s characterizing details of that protein, identifying the precise locations where neutralizing antibodies vigorously bind to it, and creating a test to ensure the spike is consistent from one manufacturing plant to another.
Since the pandemic arrived, she says, “my day just doesn’t end. And it’s the same with everyone else here.” Yet Patel, who prays and meditates daily at a temple in her home, projects serenity and good cheer. “To me, nothing is impossible. So, having that mindset, nothing stresses me out, being honest.”
Scientist Sonia Maciejewski, who works for Patel, agrees. “She has a very strong work ethic … yet somehow doesn’t put that sort of pressure or stress on us.”
Patel’s serenity gets a boost because she doesn’t see the firm as competing with others. “We are [all] working towards, together, the world’s problem,” she says.