Women Are Missing from COVID-19 Research: Why This Matters

Women have historically been underrepresented in medical research, and it is happening again in the United States with research for a COVID-19 vaccine. Alisha Haridasani Gupta, writing for the New York Times, notes that because data being collected on the virus and in clinical trials does not bother to record sex breakdowns, we will not know the answers to these questions and more:

  • How many women are infected versus men?
  • Are men and women equally likely to get infected?
  • What is the fatality rate for each sex?
  • Are symptoms exactly alike for men and women?

Gupta writes that “sex data blind spots can be traced back to the fact that, historically, science didn’t study the female body.” The assumption in science persists that there are no fundamental differences between male and female bodies, even though a vast amount of research shows otherwise. Instead, scientists still assume that any deviation in research studies from the white male archetypes is an anomaly to be ignored. Gupta cites a recent clinical trial in 2015 on “female Viagra,” which included twenty-three men and two women, as an example of the mindset of scientists who assume that including women is not important, even for a drug being developed specifically for women.

Why is it important to include women in medical research?

  • Gupta cites Caroline Criado Perez from her award-winning book as saying, “Researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body.” Gupta notes that consequently, women and men are likely to have fundamentally different reactions to the virus, vaccines, and treatments. In fact, research found that SARS, influenza, Ebola, and HIV all affect women and men differently.
  • Because of sex differences, correct dosages of vaccines and treatments are likely to be different.
  • Between 1997 and 2001, eight of the ten FDA-approved drugs withdrawn from the market “posed greater health risks for women than men,” including valvular heart disease and liver failure.
  • Sex-disaggregate data was collected during the H1N1 pandemic, which determined that pregnant women were at a higher risk. Consequently, they were the first to receive the vaccine.

Sex-aggregated data is not being collected for the COVID-19 virus in the United States, even though it was collected in other countries. Gupta notes the following challenges to changing the practice in the United States to include women and people of color:

  • Medical researchers in the United States are predominantly male and white.
  • The mindset that white women and people of color don’t need to be included in clinical trials is deeply ingrained. Including white women and people of color is perceived to be an added complication.
  • The data collection systems are not set up to collect the information, and no leadership is coming from the top of the government to do so. In fact, Gupta reports that the White House’s initial twelve-person Coronavirus Task Force was entirely male. Two women were finally added, Dr. Deborah Birx and Seema Verna, but they are outnumbered and not senior enough to push through systemic changes.

We have to keep asking the questions raised by Gupta in the opening section of this article. This situation is shameful and potentially harmful to white women and people of color.


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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