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When President Donald Trump paid a visit to the National Institutes of Health last March, the leads at the vaccine research center explained their life-saving mission. The key to that mission was a 34-year-old doctor named Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.
“I was just there telling the task force about the work that we’ve been doing,” Corbett told “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-host Michelle Miller.
Two weeks after the visit, Corbett’s team began the first stage of clinical trials. She said they took a lot of the knowledge they have gained in the last six years and applied it to a vaccine platform in collaboration with Moderna. The vaccine rolled out 10 months later.
“The vaccine teaches the body how to fend off a virus, because it teaches the body how to look for the virus by basically just showing the body the spike protein of the virus” she explained. “The body then says ‘Oh, we’ve seen this protein before. Let’s go fight against it.’ That’s how it works.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, credited Corbett during a webinar for her work.
“The vaccine you are going to be taking was developed by an African American woman and that is just a fact,” Fauci said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 6.5 million Americans have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That number is expected to grow daily, though it is well behind what public health experts were hoping to see.
Corbett’s interest in science started from an early age, but she never knew the difference she would make.
“To be honest, I didn’t realize the level of impact that my visibility might have… I do my work because I love my work,” Corbett said.
One opportunity in her life made a key difference. She attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as a Meyerhoff Scholar, an aggressive program that mentors minorities and women in science. Graduates of the program include Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski has been president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, for nearly 30 years. He said Corbett had a strong science background but the way she was able to talk to people separated her from the rest.
“She was definitely going to make it in life,” Hrabowski said. “We need more scientists who can connect to people. She could do that when she was 17, easily – What we do at UMBC is to support students of color, Black, but also students in general, to make sure they make it in science.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 18% of all students graduate with a STEM degree, among 2% are black — something Hrabowski believes needs to change.
“It’s important for people to see people looking like them, like themselves, who can be involved. If it’s about women, or if it’s about Blacks because it shows that you’ve got people who understand what you’ve gone through.”
Dr. Barney Graham and Corbett have worked together for over 15 years. Graham is not only her mentor. He’s also Corbett’s boss as deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center.
“When you recognize somebody has special qualities, you need to do things that can keep those other things out of the way and avoid some of the dismissiveness that often happens not only to minority people but to women,” Graham said.
Historically that bias strikes not just professionals in the field but those they serve. In 1931, scientists conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a study by the Public Health Service and Tuskegee Institute. It examined the progression of syphilis by letting infected Black men go untreated, with no regard to the suffering it caused.
Another example often cited is the removal of special cells of Henretta Lacks, a Baltimore, Maryland, cancer patient. In 1951, a research team at Johns Hopkins University removed Lacks’ cells without her permission and used them in medical research worth billions of dollars. Lacks died of cancer and her family was never compensated.
“There are many other examples of supposedly objective scientists who were caring about everyone, who valued people of color less… It’s a painful truth,” Hrabowski said.
Corbett’s understanding of the socio-cultural issues and her knowledge of science has made her an influential person in the scientific community.
In a time where vaccine skepticism is high among African Americans, Corbett hopes Black people will put faith in the vaccine and faith in the scientists working behind the scenes to bring it to the American people.
“Number one is that I get it. And then number two is to really take advantage of the level of transparency that we are attempting… even I haven’t even seen before, such as FDA hearings and briefings being broadcast online, and data coming out almost instantly,” she said.
As for Dr. Hrabowski, he believes Corbett deserves all the visibility she can get.
“She cannot be a hidden figure,” he said. “She needs to be in textbooks. Little girls need to see her — of all races. This is what’s possible.”