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Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett

by Debo Ofsowitz

With rollouts of new COVID vaccines picking up momentum, conversations about racial inequities in medical science have been thrust to the forefront. Even a cursory glance at modern American history explains why it is no surprise that nearly half of all Black Americans have said they don’t trust COVID vaccines.

In the 1840’s through the civil war, the man still viewed as the father of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims, performed painful surgical experiments without using any anesthesia on female slaves in his possession. During the same time, medical colleges would pay for the corpses of slaves to be used for teaching anatomy to young medical students.

In modern history we are confronted by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Beginning in 1932, the study allowed 399 men, without informed consent, to suffer with untreated syphilis for 40 years so medical scientists could study the progression of the disease over time. And in 1951, while undergoing cancer treatment, Henrietta Lacks  had cervical cells removed, without her knowledge or consent, that would go on to become the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line. Even though researchers knew about the origins of HeLa’s immortalized cell lines, the Lacks family was not made aware until 1975, nearly 25 years after Lacks’ death.

But today there is hope and that hope arrives in the form of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.

Dr. Corbett is a 34 year old, American, Viral Immunologist. She holds a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a research fellow and scientific lead at the National Institute of Health, and was on front-lines working with a team of scientists, studying Moderna’s vaccine, one of the two COVID-19 vaccines shown to be effective by more than 90 percent.

Oh, and Dr. Corbett is also Black.

Born in Hurdle Mills, an unincorporated community in North Carolina, just south of the Virginia state line

Dr. Corbett new in high school that she wanted a career in science. Her drive and curiosity led her to study and work with numerous researcher facilities. She spent a summer holiday working at UNC’s Kenan Labs, another summer as an intern at Stony Brook University, and eventually worked as a lab tech at the University of Maryland School of Nursing while studying for her bachelor’s degree.

For nearly five years (2009 to 2014) Dr. Corbett studied human antibody responses to the dengue virus in Sri Lankan children at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In October 2014, Corbett joined the team at the National Institutes of Health as a research fellow studying the mechanisms of viral pathogenesis and host immunity, specifically focusing on development of novel vaccines for coronaviridae, the family of viruses that include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the current pandemic causing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Related Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2… also known as the Coronavirus

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Corbett recognized the similarities of this Coronavirus and the ones she had already been researching. Utilizing the knowledge they had already gained, Dr. Corbett’s team was able to pivot quickly into COVID-19 vaccine research. Partnering early on with Moderna for manufacturing and testing allowed the team to move into animal trials quite rapidly. By October 2020, Dr. Corbett was presenting information about the vaccine development to help rebuild trust with vaccine hesitant populations

Today, Corbett regularly takes part in programs to inspire youth in underserved communities. Of her role in history, Dr. Corbett has said, “To be living in this moment where I have the opportunity to work on something that has imminent global importance…it’s just a surreal moment for me.”


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