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Coronavirus Heroes: Running the Vaccine Development Team

The race is on to find a vaccine against coronavirus, the virus that has infected more than 1.5 million Americans, killing more than 90,000 and trashing the economy. There are currently 100 potential contenders being tested in the hopes one will pan out within the next 12 to 18 months. 

Two weeks ago drugmaker Moderna got FDA approval to start phase two clinical trials of its vaccine candidate.

Kizzmekia Corbett, the 34-year-old National Institutes of Health research fellow who oversees the coronavirus vaccine collaboration with Moderna, has been working toward this day her entire career, though the journey hasn’t been without some sacrifice.

“There was, and is, already a fair amount of pressure,” Corbett told NBC News last month. “A lot of people are banking on us or feel that we have a product that could, at least, be part of the answer this world needs. And, well, whew, just saying that out loud is not easy.”

Truth be told, Corbett has always been on the fast track. The North Carolina native double majored in biology and sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, dividing her time between lab and field work on health outcomes in diverse communities. She earned a doctorate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2014. 

She famously told her now-boss, whom Corbett met 12 years ago while still an undergraduate doing summer work at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, that she wanted his job.

Rapid vaccine development was always her career goal. Now she’s a fellow leading the coronavirus vaccine development team.

In addition to being dedicated, Corbett isn’t shy to voice her opinion. From lamenting the lack of diversity on the White House pandemic task force, to tweeting about the toll coronavirus is taking on African Americans, she hasn’t hesitated to speak her mind. But a series of tweets in March got her in hot water: “I tweet for the people who will die when doctors has to choose who gets the last ventilator and ultimately … who lives,” she tweeted. A Twitter user responded that the virus “is a way to get rid of us,” and Corbett replied: “Some have gone as far to call it genocide. I plead the fifth.”

Since then she has limited her social media posts, but not her long hours on the grind.

“We actually changed the genetic code for the spike protein based on our knowledge that we gathered from designing vaccines for other coronaviruses in the past,” Corbett told CBS News. That spike protein is the key coronavirus uses to open the door to a body’s cells. Moderna’s vaccine uses genetic material known as messenger RNA to tell cells to make spike proteins that trigger an immune response to fight the virus.

Without a vaccine the only way to prevent disease spread is through social distancing, which is a tall order long term for Americans, Corbett said. That’s why it will be necessary to get everyone vaccinated in order for it to succeed. That means vaccine makers have got to get a product disseminated to people from all communities.

“If we don’t vaccinate just about everyone or at least a critical mass of people in every community, the vaccine will be unsuccessful on a worldwide level,” Corbett said. “It’s very clear what this virus can do and has done globally, not just inside of our community.”


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