By Micha Green
While the President’s Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, may have become the face of the United States’ fight against COVID-19, Black women, such as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, have been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus.
In fact, the national response to the coronavirus pandemic has been led, in large part, by African-American women responding to the plight of not only their community, but the country at large and overseas.
Corbett was only 34 years old when she emerged as a leader on the COVID-19 vaccine team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She came to national prominence in late 2020, when she was praised by Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at NIH, as one of the key scientists behind the COVID-19 vaccine.
“That vaccine was actually developed in my institute’s vaccine research center by a team of scientists led by Dr. Barney Graham and his close colleague, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, or Kizzy Corbett,” Fauci said in December 2020 when interrogated about the Black contribution to the vaccine’s creation. “Kizzy is an African-American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.”
The Moderna vaccine was created with significant guidance from Corbett.
“The vaccine you are going to be taking was developed by an African-American woman, and that is just a fact,” Fauci emphasized in a webinar when educating people about the vaccine in the early stages of its distribution.
Though Corbett may be young, she’s no newbie to the world of infectious diseases and vaccines. As a 10th grader, Corbett was selected to participate in the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED, which promotes learning and growth opportunities for minority students, and now boasts the vaccine’s developer as one of their alumni. Through Project SEED, she studied in chemistry labs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill and then attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a full scholarship.
Now considered a full circle moment, as a college student, Corbett interned at laboriaties at NIH, the very same place she would later go on to become a history maker in the fight against COVID-19. She then went on to UNC Chapel Hill for a doctorate in immunology and microbiology. There, according to her LinkedIn account, she worked as a research assistant studying the dengue virus infection — a viral infection transmitted to humans through mosquitoes.
In 2014, she began working with NIH as a research fellow examining pathogenesis and vaccine design, as well as respiratory viruses, such as COVID-19. Six years later, she found herself making history and helping to save the country and world with her work on the Moderna vaccine.
“The vaccine teaches the body how to fend off a virus and it teaches the body how to look for the virus by basically just showing the spike in protein of the virus,” Corbett said to CBS News in 2021. “The body then says ‘Oh, we’ve seen this protein before. Let’s go fight against it.’ That’s how it works.”
Some African Americans that were hesitant to get the shot found comfort in knowing that a Black woman had a major hand in the creation of the vaccine.
“We must be honest about the fact that people have a righteous skepticism about how it has been used, how it has been tested and on whom it will be used,” Vice President Kamala Harris told Al Sharpton on MSNBC. “I can tell you, first of all, that these vaccines are safe. It will save your life. There is a Black woman, Dr. Kizzy Corbett, who was part of the team of scientists who created this vaccine, and it will save your life.”
With Corbett key in creating the vaccine, ensuring its efficacy with variants and championing its safety and necessity in this COVID-filled world, other Black women have been supporting her efforts from a policy and political standpoint. Dr. Nunez-Smith has been working closely to achieve equity in combatting the coronavirus.
As Chair of the President’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and a White House COVID-19 Response Advisor, Nunez-Smith works regularly to combat the spread of COVID, educate the American people on the disease, ensure that minority communities receive sufficient resources to protect themselves from COVID, and to address the disparities seen in the impact of the coronavirus, especially in relation to Black and Brown people.
In September 2021, Nunez-Smith talked to the AFRO about closing the race gap when it came to vaccinations.
“That’s the result of intentional work to address the concerns,” Nunez- Smith said. “We’ve made important progress in increasing vaccination rates and vaccination inequities.”
Nunez-Smith emphasized the importance and safety of the COVID-19 vaccination.
“I just want everybody to join in this space of, ‘let’s work with what we do know.’ What we do know is vaccination protects and that is really critical. They’re safe and hundreds of millions of doses were safely given and they are effective,” she said.