Kizzmekia Corbett Unlocked the Science of the Covid Vaccine
Kizzmekia Corbett had gone home to North Carolina for the holidays in 2019 when the headlines began to trickle in: A strange, pneumonialike illness was making dozens of people sick in China.
By the first week of January 2020, the number of infected people in China had climbed to the hundreds, and Dr. Corbett, a viral immunologist, was back at her desk at the National Institutes of Health, where she served as a senior research fellow at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And that’s when the news was confirmed: The mysterious illness was a novel coronavirus, exactly the category of infection that she had been probing for the past five years in a bid to develop a vaccine.
Coronaviruses can cause all kinds of illness, like the common cold or more crippling diseases like MERS and SARS. Novel coronaviruses are new strains that are identified in humans for the first time. And when it came to the race for a vaccine against Covid-19, Dr. Corbett, who was part of important work on other coronavirus outbreaks, was at the vanguard.
Next month will be the three-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaring Covid-19 a pandemic, on March 11, 2020. But in those fraught first few months of 2020, Dr. Corbett helped lead a team of scientists that contributed to one of the most stunning achievements in the history of immunizations: a highly effective, easily manufactured vaccine against Covid-19, delivered and authorized for use in under a year.
On Jan. 6, 2020, that goal started to take on a new urgency. As the number of sick people in China began to climb, Dr. Corbett huddled with her supervisor, Dr. Barney Graham, the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory. Both noted that this new disease bore eerie similarities to SARS and MERS, which each killed hundreds. Dr. Corbett’s work, and the work of her entire team, suddenly had urgent implications.
“At the time, we had no idea it would become a global pandemic,” she said. “So what I felt was excitement about being able to prove myself and my work to the world.”
Dr. Corbett, 37, was used to having to prove herself. As a Black woman in science, she is accustomed to asserting her worth in rooms filled with white men. In early 2020, she had been at the National Institutes of Health for five years, and had already published groundbreaking research about the structure of other coronaviruses, and how the viruses’ spike proteins — which form a distinctive crown shape on the surface of the virus and latch on to healthy cells in the body — act as the doorway to infection. This research was part of the foundation, laid by scientists including Dr. Graham, Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, for the Covid-19 vaccine, the fastest vaccine ever developed.