Kizzmekia S. Corbett, Ph.D., is a scientist who is destined for history books. Corbett has been at the forefront of the development of a highly effective vaccine to protect against COVID-19. Less than a year after the virus began spreading globally, the vaccine began to be delivered to millions of healthcare workers and others at high-risk. Prior to the pandemic, Corbett was part of a team at the National Institutes of Health whose research on other coronaviruses laid the foundation for the design of the COVID-19 vaccine. These early efforts were pivotal to the unprecedented speed with which their COVID-19 vaccine was developed in collaboration with the biotech company Moderna. Corbett is not only a renowned immunologist, she is a powerful voice bringing awareness to racial health disparities and encouraging trust in science. During an exceptionally difficult period in our history, Corbett is a beacon of hope and an inspiration for scientists to come.
It was an unprepossessing name, “mRNA-1273,” for something so critical. But when Kizzmekia Corbett and her colleagues in the Vaccine Research Center of the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) unveiled their molecular prototype in January 2020, mRNA-1273 became a gamechanger. It would soon be better known as the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, one of two revolutionary messenger RNA vaccines to emerge from laboratories in record time to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a swiftly spreading disease that caused at least 2.5 million deaths worldwide, approximately 500,000 of those in the U.S., in the span of about one year.
A week after her lab produced mRNA-1273, Kizzmekia Corbett turned 34. Within a year, two sitting presidents would drop by her lab for briefings. Her top boss at NIAID, Anthony Fauci, would call her a “rising star.” Like mRNA-1273 itself, Corbett seemed to emerge overnight, but both the scientist and the science behind messenger RNA vaccines were a long time coming. Before being thrust into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic, Corbett was little known outside the world of viral immunology. A senior research fellow in NIAID’s vaccine development unit, Corbett focused on viral diseases including dengue, respiratory syncytial virus, and recent coronaviruses such as MERS. These early research efforts were pivotal to the speed with which the COVID-19 vaccine was developed.
In those quieter years, Corbett studied the shapes of coronavirus “spikes” that protrude from the virus’s surface. She discovered how to genetically engineer stable spike pieces that the immune system could recognize and mount a broadly neutralizing protective response. Corbett and her colleagues determined how to deliver the genetic material encoding these spike fragments to cells in tiny bubbles, encouraging them to make a small fragment of the MERS virus for the immune system to recognize and to attack should the real virus later enter the body. Corbett and her colleagues successfully tested their experimental mRNA vaccine in mouse and monkey models and developed methods for assessing effectiveness.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Corbett’s team partnered with a Massachusetts-based biotech company, Moderna, to transfer their discoveries about the MERS vaccine to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. While the mRNA system was yet untested in humans, it offered huge advantages for rapid development and mass manufacturing. The gene fragments in the vaccine could also be easily reshaped to target new viral variants and other viruses.
On January 11, 2020, Corbett’s lab received the first full genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 from Chinese scientists. Two days later, Corbett and colleagues had mRNA-1273. Just 66 days after the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was determined, the NIH/Moderna team gave the first vaccine dose in a pilot clinical trial. Subsequent large clinical trials showed that the NIH/Moderna vaccine had an astounding 94% effectiveness rate in protecting against COVID-19. On December 18, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization for the Moderna two-dose vaccine. Since then, millions of healthcare workers, high-risk individuals, and increasingly ordinary Americans have received the vaccine that got its start in Corbett’s lab.
As the Moderna vaccine distribution progresses, Corbett’s lab is pursuing work on a universal coronavirus vaccine that would use mRNA to alert the immune system to features fundamental to all members of the coronavirus family. The Vaccine Research Center is also at work developing novel therapeutic uses for the antibodies triggered by SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Corbett herself has taken on a prominent role as a vaccine educator, reaching out especially to communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and have long suffered from healthcare disparities. As one of the most highly visible African-American scientists in the fight against COVID-19, Corbett feels she has a special role. She works to bridge the gap between vaccine science and public understanding by explaining the science to address people’s concerns. “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,” Corbett said in an interview with Nature. To get the word out, she often virtually meets with church and school groups, engages with news media outlets, and creates online videos. Corbett also volunteers her time in schools as a role model for children from under-resourced communities, encouraging them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Her own story is certainly inspirational. Born in rural North Carolina, Corbett was educated in local schools where her teachers spotted her gifts. In the tenth grade, Corbett was picked for a summer program aimed at minority students, interning in chemistry labs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. She earned her undergraduate degree in biological sciences and sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2008. She returned to UNC Chapel Hill for her graduate work, researching antibody responses to dengue virus for her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. After graduating, Corbett became a research fellow at NIH.
Corbett’s research has been honored with Kaiser Permanente’s African Americans in Health Care Award (2021), the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s The Golden Goose Award (2020), the Foundation for National Institutes of Health’s Salzman Memorial Award in Virology (2020), the American Society for Microbiology’s Early Career Applied and Biotechnological Research Award (2020), and many more.
In January 2021, mRNA-1273 turned one and Kizzmekia Corbett turned 35. In a year of extraordinary suffering and challenge, Corbett has shown the combined power of scientific brilliance and a fierce dedication to the public good in the emergence of mRNA vaccines.
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Information as of March 2021