Pfizer loses top vaccine scientist Jansen who led drive for COVID-19 shot, searches for successor

Amid Pfizer's run as a global vaccine heavyweight—emphasized lately by its success with COVID-19 shot, Comirnaty—the company is losing a top scientist.

Kathrin Jansen
Kathrin Jansen (Pfizer)

Kathrin Jansen, the leader of Pfizer's vaccine R&D group, has decided to retire, the company's Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten said in a LinkedIn post. The company plans to conduct a search for her replacement and will name a successor afterward, he said.

Jansen had a long and successful career even before the company's recent breakthrough with its COVID-19 vaccine, Dolsten noted. She was a senior vice president at Wyeth and a member of its R&D executive team before that drugmaker's sale to Pfizer in 2009.

In addition, she previously spent 12 years at Merck Research Laboratories, where she led early research that resulted in the company's groundbreaking HPV vaccine franchise Gardasil.

But it was Jansen's most recent accomplishment on Comirnaty that turned Pfizer into a household name. In partnership with BioNTech, Pfizer's vaccine division—under Jansen's leadership—scored the first COVID-19 vaccine emergency use authorization from the FDA, in December 2020, less than a year into the pandemic.

In 2021, the company manufactured more than 3 billion doses of the vaccine. Aside from the shot's impact on the pandemic fight, Pfizer has recorded tens of billions of dollars in sales from the program.

"Over the last two years, Kathrin’s legendary resolve, stellar scientific intuition and vaccine development expertise ushered in the first glimmer of hope for humanity in the middle of the pandemic," Dolsten wrote on LinkedIn. "On top of what was already a distinguished career, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is an accomplishment achieved under Kathrin’s leadership and one that helped to change the course of history."

Before Comirnaty, Pfizer had the world's bestselling vaccine franchise in pneumococcal shot Prevnar. The company is in the early stages of its Prevnar 20 launch in a market duel with Merck, which has its own next-gen pneumococcal shot.