13 Black American Pioneers Who Changed Healthcare

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In early January 2020, the virus quickly spreading through China that had been making headlines since December was confirmed to be a novel coronavirus — a new strain in the same family of viruses that Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, had been studying for five years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a senior research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis Team in the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the North Carolina native was in the perfect position to quickly respond.

After the genetic sequence of the new virus was revealed by scientists on January 10 — before the virus was even known to have hit U.S. shores — Dr. Corbett’s expertise on coronaviruses enabled her to prepare a modified sequence for a vaccine in mere hours, according to an article in The New York Times. By January 14, the NIH had already shared her sequence with the vaccine developer Moderna, which started running its first human trials of the vaccine in March. By December, the new COVID-19 vaccine was authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use.

The work of Corbett and her team of scientists contributed to the fastest ever development of a new vaccine, and one that was highly effective and easy to manufacture. The biopharmaceutical company Pfizer developed a COVID-19 vaccine using the same synthetic messenger RNA to fight the virus as the Moderna vaccine, and together the two vaccines have been administered to billions of people around the world, according to the World Health Organization.

Following her success in developing the vaccine, Corbett was asked by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to head up her own lab in the department of immunology and infectious diseases. She also became an assistant professor in the department in June 2021, continuing her work as a viral immunologist with plans to focus on research for future pandemic preparedness and the development of universal vaccines.

“I want to do what we did with coronaviruses — create a solid body of knowledge for other viruses so that the world has information at hand to quickly and safely develop vaccines,” she told Harvard Public Health. “That concept is called ‘pandemic preparedness,’ and that’s really what my lab here will be focusing on.”

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