In the latest instalment of our Women in COG series, we caught up with Dr June Raine, Chief Executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, to learn more about her experiences during the pandemic and as a woman in science.
Watch the full recording here or read our summary of the conversation with COG-UK Operations Director Dr Catherine Ludden below.
Halfway through the conversation, June Raine reflected on the extraordinary moment almost a year previously when she first knew that, without doubt, the benefits of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine far outweighed the risks. This prompted a message for the members of COG-UK and all scientists involved in the pandemic response:
“Wherever you are on the first of December, pause for a minute and think: we were all part of this moment in the UK.”
The next day, December 2, 2020, the UK became the first country to authorise a COVID vaccine for use.
Catherine asked June how she reacted to suddenly being in the public spotlight. She responded that the tally of lives lost and the terrible ICU admission figures at the time pushed any feelings of reticence and of being a backroom person to one side. Instead, the focus was completely on the job that needed to be done and in ensuring that public trust in the process was maintained and deepened.
As a result, the MHRA’s response to the pandemic led to a rapid increase in openness and transparency. As June put it, “many people don’t know what regulation means and it was very clear that if we were going to make decisions that affect large numbers of people lives, they would need to understand more about what we do and how we do it”.
It was a huge moment of pride for June when, compared to the expected vaccine uptake of 50 to 60 percent, for the older or more vulnerable groups it was 94 percent. “I do hope that being more open helped to support that uptake, the fact that the public would know the care that was taken over these decisions.”
The power of medicines
The seeds for June’s career were sown as a medical student when she developed an interest in how medicines could change human health. This was starkly illustrated by seeing firsthand the disparities in healthcare between Africa and the UK during a placement in Malawi. June was shocked that only half the patients she saw with leprosy were taking their drugs, but when she mentioned this to her Hammersmith colleagues, they said 50 percent compliance was in fact very good. It hit home that promoting the use and access to safe medicines in public health was an area where she could make a difference.
This realisation turned into a career when, during her medical degree, a professor of clinical pharmacology noted June’s interest in science and research and suggested the area of regulation as a challenging blend of applied science, policy, teamwork, legal regulations, decision making and ultimately improving the lives of patients. She was also attracted by the emerging field of evidence-based medicine, the rise of disruptive scientific advances and technologies, and the growing trend of patients becoming decision makers rather than just recipients of healthcare.
As strong as the strongest
Catherine asked what gave June the resilience to get through the pressures of the pandemic. She replied, “I place all the credit with the team I work with and am privileged to lead, and that is said with utter sincerity”. The whole agency team, from the basic scientists to colleagues in licencing, vigilance, communications and policy, put the pandemic response first, and June spoke of an innate sense of gathering round to support any colleagues needing extra support. “We’re as strong as the strongest, not as the weakest, and that has been what I’ve relied on.”
A listener asked what goes into creating a team environment with a great support structure and cohesion in high-stakes environments. June replied that having a common, clear vision was the key, and that this is often easier when the stakes are high. She added that empowering people to take action, prioritise and make decisions themselves is key to enabling teams to gel together.
The conversation was insightful for people at all stages of their careers. Firstly, June encouraged others to follow their dreams and passions, without compromise. This is in stark contrast to the advice she was given on graduation from medical school. “When I qualified in 1978, our dean said that women can only do four things: psychiatry, anaesthesia, radiology or pathology. And if you had ambitions in other directions, you had better modify your hopes.”
Secondly, June challenged listeners to leave their comfort zones and take on unexpected challenges. She recounted a moment when a position became available to take the lead on medical devices and she thought “that’s definitely not me”. Twenty-four hours later, that’s exactly what she was doing.
She recommends jumping in with two feet, “look to your colleagues, your team, your family for the support you’re going to need, and you’ll find it’s forthcoming without reservation, because the fact that you’ve taken a brave and a bold decision will be recognised by everyone around you”.
Finally, don’t be afraid of failure, acknowledge that you made the best effort you could, and the time was just not right. If you learn from mistakes then nothing is lost.
Professor Sharon Peacock closed the event on behalf of COG-UK and paid tribute to June’s fortitude, calling her “a truly inspirational person who’s touched every single life in the country” and an “incredible role model”.
All are warmly welcome to the next Women in COG event, which will be a conversation between Professor Sharon Peacock and Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, at 12.00 on Thursday 16 December 2021. Please see more details on our website.