Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is an integral part of the team behind the Moderna vaccine. She’s a Black viral immunologist and one of the National Institute of Health’s leading scientists. Corbett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology, and all of her previous work studying infectious diseases laid the groundwork for her work on the COVID vaccine. In addition to studying science, she also studied sociology as a way to understand things like racial disparities and how science is connected to that. Because of her work with the Moderna vaccine, she has become more forward facing, using her knowledge of the vaccine’s creation to help educate the general public.
“It became very clear that nature was going to have its way if we did not prepare,” Corbett told CNN.
In an interview with Nature, Kizzmekia Corbett explained that as early as January 2020, her team was already doing all the things they needed to do to prepare the vaccine. She was creating the necessary teams, ordering the materials, and putting feet on the ground to really kick things off when it came to teaming up with Moderna to get a vaccine ready. There is no way they could have done it so fast if they didn’t begin preparing in advance.
“The concept is called ‘pandemic preparedness.’ And so we’ve been working on this, at least in the coronavirus field, for about seven years now.”
So while it may seem like everything was happening very suddenly and the vaccine was rushed, that’s not accurate. They were able to fast track everything because the ground had already been laid by Corbett and her team over time. We, the general public, only hear about things when they get bad and start affecting us directly. But that’s the miracle of science. They see these things coming further ahead than we do, and they’re able to then do the necessary work to start preparing and planning.
As a Black woman, and the only one on the developing team, Dr. Corbett is in a unique position. While she and her team were developing the Moderna vaccine, the country was being more exposed to just how vulnerable the Black community, and other communities of color are affected by public crises. Of course, it had an effect on her and how she did her work to make sure the vaccine was made.
“It was a very sad time for me,” she explained to CNN. “It wasn’t just about the pandemic that is COVID-19, but there was this juxtaposition with George Floyd’s murder and all of that. That really came together and just really put a burden on me in so many ways.”
The summer of 2020 was especially hard for the Black community at large. Watching the George Floyd murder and then the enduring the conversations around race placed a heavy burden on Black folks. If you compound that with the way COVID was decimating the Black community in disproportionate numbers, it would be a lot for anyone to deal with. But instead of letting it get her down, Dr. Corbett used it to propel her farther into her work on the vaccine.“It made me get more motivated around what I needed to do as far as getting this vaccine out,” she told CNN.
Kizzmekia Corbett understands that the Black community is at a great disadvantage medically. Access to quality medical care is a burden for many Black folks, whether it be because of money, distance, or just having a good, equitable doctor. So often, Black people suffer at the hands of medical professionals who don’t give them the care they deserve. And COVID has been no different. So making sure that people can have access to safe, effective, free vaccines is incredibly important. Dr. Corbett is aware that she plays a key role in giving back to her community in a big way, and she takes that job seriously.
“I understand that vaccines are really a way to help to level the playing field when it comes to health disparities. I think as I have looked back on the pandemic and my work and my team’s work in the pandemic, I feel like it was my purpose, almost.”
Throughout the pandemic and into the vaccine rollout, Dr. Corbett has been (and continues to be) a great advocate, but also a resource for communities of color, especially the Black community. Much of the talk around the vaccine has been the hesitance of the Black community to get the shot. She is well aware of the conversations happening around that issue, and has made it her duty, as someone who helped create the vaccine, to dispel those concerns.
“I want to change the narrative a little bit. Instead of calling it hesitancy, I call it vaccine inquisitiveness,” Corbett told Good Morning America.
As soon as talk of the vaccine began, the Black community has been looked at as the people most reluctant to get the shot. And while many people claimed the hesitancy was a result of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment from the 1930s, it’s actually the health disparities Black people currently face. It’s easier to use a study that ended in the 1970s rather than address the real structural issues the Black community faces right now.
“We have a tendency to use Tuskegee as a scapegoat, for us, as researchers, not doing what we need to do to ensure that people are well educated about the benefits of participating in a clinical trial,” vice president of diversity at Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, B. Lee Green, told the Los Angeles Times.
Black people do want to get vaccinated, but the hesitance comes from a lot of different sources. When you have been disenfranchised by the medical establishment for so long, it’s going to take time to build trust. And no one wanted to take the time to build that trust. Kizzmekia Corbett is taking the time to make sure that she is providing the necessary outreach to the Black community in an attempt to properly educate them on the science of the vaccine. Her Twitter feed is full of useful information for people to understand what’s happening and what’s coming next.
“I do it to communicate science to people who aren’t scientists,” she told Nature about why she uses her Twitter feed to educate.
“For a long time, we left the general public on the outside of vaccine development, until it was time to give them their shot. And that’s just unacceptable. I can’t even blame anyone for being skeptical about this, because they don’t have any idea what went into it. So, our goal is to inform people. It’s very helpful for people to feel like they’re part of something.”
It’s clear to Kizzmekia Corbett that outreach is the only way forward when it comes to battling COVID. It’s wonderful to see a Black woman in a position of power and making a difference. But it’s really amazing seeing her using her position to work with her community. Because for some people, there is going to be a certain level of trust if they know that a Black woman had a hand in the creation of the Moderna vaccine. Seeing a Black woman being interviewed and profiled and taking her time to educate people is inspiring. And for people who may be hesitant, seeing Dr. Corbett may help ease some of that hesitation. We’re very lucky to have her in our corner.