Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), is one of the scientists who in early 2020 helped to develop an mRNA-based vaccine for COVID-19. Developed in collaboration with biotech firm Moderna of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the vaccine is now being distributed across the United States and elsewhere. And Corbett is taking on another challenge: tempering vaccine hesitancy by talking about COVID-19 science in communities of colour.
Corbett is one of many Black scientists and doctors who are doing this outreach, often virtually, in their free time. Researchers say it’s necessary to make scientific knowledge accessible in public forums, to ease health disparities.
In the United States, COVID-19 has affected Black, Native American and Latino American people at higher rates than white people, for reasons rooted in racism and historical segregation. At the same time, people in these groups are more wary of COVID-19 vaccines. In a December survey by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46% of Black adults said they probably would not get vaccinated against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, compared with 30% of white respondents. Those who were hesitant cited worries about side effects, and the speed at which the vaccines were developed. A legacy of exploitative medical research, such as infamous syphilis studies in Tuskegee, Alabama — in which doctors withheld treatment from hundreds of Black men from the 1930s and 1970s — contributes to this scepticism.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Corbett was part of a team at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and elsewhere, that was designing vaccines for other coronaviruses in collaboration with Moderna. The scientists’ mRNA technology delivers a piece of genetic code to a person’s cells to create immune-stimulating virus proteins. When the outbreak began, the team mobilized to quickly identify the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence it would need to make a vaccine for COVID-19, which Moderna then produced. Before trials began in people, Corbett designed tests of the vaccine in animals, and perfected assays that measured its effectiveness in clinical trials.
Nature spoke to Corbett between appointments in her packed schedule, which included beaming into virtual events at churches and community gatherings to talk about vaccine science, attending NIH group meetings and tweeting about virus biology and vaccine misinformation as @KizzyPhD.
What was your role in designing a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, and what was that like?
My contribution was helping to design the vaccine, leading the preclinical studies that informed the Phase I clinical trial and designing assays used for testing of clinical trial samples.
The quest in early January 2020 was to gear up. We started ordering all the things that we needed around animal experiments. We mapped out a plan. I started assigning roles to team members.
If you want to go fast in a pandemic, then messenger RNA (mRNA) is a shoo-in. It can be manufactured very quickly in very vast quantities, and it’s plug and play in that you can essentially just swap out the protein once you have the system down. We collaborated with Moderna so we could get the system down pat.
You began giving science talks to the public at age 20. What did you talk about?
I would do it really around the thing that the people need to know. Girl Scouts need to know about puberty and sexually transmitted diseases and sex. And churches often need to have something scientifically broken down for them by someone who also believes in God. It’s not about what you’re saying, it’s about how you relate to the people you’re saying it to.
During the pandemic, you’ve spoken at many events, often with communities of colour. What are some ways you build trust?
Always invite questions at the end. Scientists are notorious for running over time. If you short people on their questions, you lose all the trust you just gained, because it looks like you’re avoiding them. I generally try to double my question time.
My role is to deliver science in a digestible fashion. When I present a bar chart, I say, “This is the axis, and this is what you’re seeing, and this is how it was tested.” So, the goal is that eventually people see enough of this, and we get to a point where we don’t have to do that any more.
What worries people most about COVID-19 vaccines?
Speed is the biggest thing. I think the technology being new is another. There are questions around the safety of the technology, particularly in the long term. There are questions about DNA, and fertility, and also whatever is on social media that day. Yesterday, there was a story where a Black woman unfortunately passed away after getting her COVID-19 vaccine. Whatever is happening on social media is what people are going to be concerned about.
Is that why it’s important for you to tweet about vaccines?
I do it to communicate science to people who aren’t scientists. I am learning more and more that people have not been exposed to all the things that we do from a research perspective. We publish these articles and we think we’re getting data out — but, like, who are you getting it to?
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 sceptical about this, because they don’t have any idea what went into it. So, our goal is to inform people. It’s very helpful for people to feel like they’re part of something.
Why is this outreach important for you now?
I have studied health disparities since I was in college. I’m a double major in sociology. I understand the intricate interlacing of science and health, particularly for disparities, and particularly for people of colour. So it’s near and dear to my heart. It’s actually the reason vaccine development is important to me, and is where I chose to take my viral-immunology career.
Vaccines have the potential to be the equalizer of health disparities, especially around infectious diseases. I could never sleep at night if I developed anything — if any product of my science came out — and it did not equally benefit the people that look like me. Period.