Vidia Surendra Roopchand, Pfizer Principal Research Scientist. (Pfizer contributed Image / News Americas)
One NAN first
By NAN Staff Writer
News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Weds. December 23, 2020: Much has been said about the Caribbean-born doctor Dr. Michelle Chester, who gave the first COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine in the US and wrote about Caribbean-born nurse Sandra Lindsay, and more needs to be said, was the first in the US to receive the shot. Few know that one of the scientists who helped develop the much-needed COVID-19 vaccine, BNT162b2, was also born in the Caribbean.
Pfizer’s lead researcher Vidia Surendra Roopchand was born in the CARICOM nation of South America, Guyana, and News Americas recently caught up with him exclusively to gather his thoughts after the vaccine became a reality.
When asked how he feels about making history as an immigrant and Caribbean immigrant from Guyana as part of the team that delivered the first vaccine to contain the COVID-19 virus, Roopchand said, “It was more than anything humiliating experience! ”
“I am also honored and happy to have contributed to the team effort that delivered the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine,” added the 53-year-old scientist, who grew up on the tiny island of Wakenaam in Essequibo River in Guyana.
He credits his educational background and life experiences in the Caribbean and Guyana. “This is an American story too, I represented Guyana and the Caribbean in this effort, but it’s also an embodiment of the American dream and the great things that can be done in America,” he added.
QUESTIONS ABOUT RACE AND VACCINE
When asked about his message to immigrants and people of color who, because of their history, are reluctant to take the vaccine and take it when it is widely available, Roopchand said, “For every successful vaccine I’ve worked on during my career at Pfizer I’ve always asked myself the following question. “Would I take this vaccine and would I recommend this vaccine to a loved one?”
“The answer to that question has always been a resounding ‘yes,” “he said. “I will take this vaccine and I will recommend this vaccine to everyone I love. My wife is taking it today (December 21, 2020) at her hospital (NYP Bronxville). “
Pfizer’s lead scientist announced that the development of the BNT162b2 vaccine has been “thorough and transparent” to regulators around the world.
“The data has been presented to the world’s leading infectious disease experts and anti-vaccine movement,” said Roopchand. “The data from the clinical trials are publicly available so that people can see for themselves what regulators had to say. There are also interviews with vaccine recipients that are available. “
He revealed that regarding side effects, vaccinated volunteers should expect to experience possible feeling tired or experiencing headaches, chills, or muscle aches soon after immunization. But he said, “That’s to be expected.”
“It just means your immune system is working,” Roopchand explained, reiterating that people with allergies to any of the vaccine components should not receive the vaccine.
The vaccine contains: mRNA, lipids, potassium chloride, monobasic potassium phosphate, sodium chloride, dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate and sucrose.
Named after the late West Indian Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul, Roopchand is the oldest of the principal’s retired children, according to a profile in the Guyana newsroom.
As a young boy of eleven, he discovered his interest in chemistry. He began his formal education at the Sans Souci Methodist School and then at the Anna Regina Multilateral School. He graduated from the University of Guyana in 1990 and then emigrated to New York. He then earned two masters degrees – one in immunology from New York Medical College and one in chemical engineering from Columbia University.
Shortly after landing at Pfizer, he never dreamed that he would be part of history in 2020 amid a global pandemic.
“The courage and audacity it takes to make this vaccine has marveled me for the past ten months,” he told News Americas. “We were brave in this endeavor, but we always knew that failure was always possible as this was a new technology that was being evaluated. So I said it was a humbling experience.”
Roopchand said the team working on the project “knew the world depended on us to deliver this vaccine and this motivated and inspired us to do our best.”
“As one of the few organizations in the world that can make vaccines, we all understand that we have a social and patriotic responsibility to do so,” he added. “I didn’t become a scientist to do simple things, I didn’t graduate with immunology or chemical engineering degrees to do predictable tasks. I love challenges, I can’t accept the status quo on drugs and vaccines, I want to constantly improve public health. … Pfizer penicillin moment was in 1942,…. This is our generation’s ‘Pfizer moment’. “
THE PROCESS AND THE OBLIGATION PERSONAL
Roopchand said the first few weeks of working on the vaccine were quite stressful “because there were so many vaccine candidates to evaluate and I was leading the group that provided the cells required for the expression studies, and I also helped with some of the immunological studies. “
“That meant I had to juggle a lot between my chores, some days were longer than others, but the adrenaline kicked in and got me through,” he revealed. “Interestingly, the days of the week felt different during all of this because we worked seven days a week and were in constant communication with our BioNTech employees in Germany, who were in a different time zone. …. We didn’t come up with the “mattresses on the factory premises” scenario (for penicillin) in Pfizer Brooklyn in 1942, but the experience was quite disruptive to our daily routine. “
He said balancing family and work responsibilities was also a challenge, but thanked his mother-in-law for helping him and his wife, Nadia, a nurse and front-line worker, make it through.
HIS MESSAGE TO THE CARIBBEAN YOUTH WHO WOULD LIKE TO FOLLOW IN HIS FIELD
Roopchand has a simple message for young immigrants and Caribbean nationals who want to follow in his footsteps. “Dare to dream,” he said. “As President Thomas Jefferson said, ‘We must courageously seek knowledge and never fear the path of truth and reason and the answers that flow from it.’ Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from achieving great goals in life. “
Commenting on the failure that many young people struggle with today, the Guyanese national noted, “Failure at something does not make you fail, it just means that you have tried something and found it was not for you correct is.”
“Then you can move on to something else, but at least you know what is not right for you. Find your passion and remember that when you experience new things in life, your passion can change, ”he added. “Develop social and academic skills, be resilient, believe in yourself, choose your friends carefully. Your friends, whom you correct when you do something wrong, are your true friends.”
“The world will emerge stronger than ever from this pandemic and you need to earn your place in this increasingly technology-driven world,” added Roopchand. “We are on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution and the Guyanese and Caribbean education systems will lay the foundation for you to be a part of it.”