Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett talks to Clevelanders about vaccine development

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the lead scientists behind the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the lead scientists behind the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, spoke to Clevelanders at a public lecture hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History on August 13. She explained the scientific background knowledge that she and her team already had on coronaviruses before the pandemic, the thought processes behind their breakthrough research, and in a post-talk Q&A, she explained her best methods for helping persuade the unvaccinated.

Corbett worked as an immunologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 2014 until this year, when she accepted a position as an assistant professor at Harvard. Since the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, and a name-drop by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Corbett has quickly become the face of both African-Americans working in STEM fields and the push to vaccinate Black citizens still wary of the medicine. Originally from Hillsborough, N.C., Corbett attended the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and later completed her doctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill across the ocean in Sri Lanka studying dengue viruses.

Corbett began working on a COVID-19 vaccine specifically in January 2020, using research she and her team had already learned while studying SARS and MERS, both also coronaviruses. In her talk, Corbett credited her former colleagues, team leader Dr. Barney Graham and research scientist Olubukola Abiona, for their efforts in the creation of the vaccine. She also said there were “well over one hundred” people on the research team, many of whom worked up to 16-hour days during the entire time of development.

She admitted to the audience right away that she was happy to be in Cleveland, saying frankly, “it’s a pleasure to be anywhere outside my house,” garnering a laugh from the concurring in-person audience. This was her first lecture since accepting the position at Harvard.

She began by explaining what she and her team already knew about coronaviruses prior to embarking on the new phase of COVID-19-specific research. Coronavirus cells use ‘spike proteins’ to latch onto receptors on the outer surface of human cells. These spike proteins are often depicted sticking out from the virus cell in cartoon representations and close-up photos – they are COVID-19’s most recognizable physical trait.

Corbett explains the basis of their research was to figure out “how to block the door” on the virus cells using a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine to prevent the viruses from entering human cells. “It had been tested in MERS a long time ago,” she said, “we know how to work with this technology.”

Messenger RNA comes from the nucleus of our bodies’ cells and contains the codes that tell our cells how to make specific proteins we need to survive. The mRNA moves from the nucleus to other parts of the cell where ‘ribosomes’ translate the code from it, using the code to naturally create those specific proteins. The body’s cells will then naturally destroy the mRNA after it has been used.

The Moderna vaccine works by injecting pre-coded, synthetic mRNA into the body. The mRNA is created in a lab and doesn’t contain any part of the actual virus as it is not needed. The body’s cells can then recognize the spike protein, triggering it to respond by creating ‘antibodies.’ Those antibodies block the spike proteins from binding themselves to, and then allowing the virus to enter, our body’s cells. The immune response is developed in advance so if we do catch COVID-19, our cells know what it is and have already created the pathogens to destroy it, thus preventing us from getting sick.

Because only spike proteins are de-coded and created, instead of the actual virus cell itself, there is no chance of catching COVID-19 from the mRNA vaccine. There is also no chance of the virus altering our genetic makeup – our DNA is bypassed entirely in this process. “[That is why] mRNA is not a fix for genetic disorders,” Corbett explained, “it doesn’t interact with your DNA.”

Though it is not known how long the vaccine’s protection will last, Corbett did say, “older and immunocompromised people will have a faster drop in vaccine immunity.” The need for booster shots is “not uncommon,” according to Corbett. Vaccines against tetanus are currently recommended every 10 years.

Corbett went on to explain that she and her team approached the creation of the vaccine with three key concepts: fast, reliable, and universal. The Moderna vaccine can be easily reproduced in mass quantities and uses mRNA technology that had already been studied and used in humans before. Though a universal coronavirus vaccine has yet to be developed, Corbett spoke of the “plug and play” approach, where a basic vaccine could be created and then added with mRNA codes specific to that version of the virus as it emerges.

Corbett said the prior knowledge we have on coronaviruses is what helped the vaccine trial and approval happen so quickly – in just 66 days. She insisted no corners were cut. “The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] was just as scared as you were,” she said, “we went through all these steps and a bit more.”

Corbett believes “getting vaccinated is your community service [and] the point of [her] being here is to make sure we get people vaccinated.” During a post-talk Q&A, Corbett offered her advice on how to encourage others to get vaccinated.

“I had to change the way I listen,” said Corbett, who sees the decision to get the vaccine as a “risk assessment.” “I take a very individual approach, I listen [to their concerns], and then I try to guide that person through their individual risk assessment using very direct answers.”

Corbett referred to Cleveland on her Twitter page as “Stop #70” on her “‘Race To The Covid-19 Vaccine’ tour,” which she plans to continue while also performing her new job duties at Harvard. In addition to her professorial debut, she will be heading the Corbett Lab, where she hopes to further her current research goals.

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