Meet Dr Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the scientists behind the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 6, 2024 11:32 AM EDT
Dr Kizzmekia Corbett. Photo credit: Global Virus Network

The COVID-19 vaccines have been credited with greatly reducing the spread of the virus and the severity of illness, as well as aiding in the recovery of many economies. According to a 2022 study, COVID-19 vaccines prevented around 17 million deaths in 185 countries and territories. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a Freeman Hrabowski Scholar at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, played a leading role in the development of the vaccine. Her work in developing the Moderna mRNA vaccine had a significant impact on mitigating the pandemic.

“We were racing ourselves. It was all about proof of principle. But when hundreds of thousands of people start to die, you realize how important the work you’re doing is,” Corbett said about the process of creating the vaccine.

Corbett showed promise from a young age. Her fourth-grade teacher identified her extraordinary abilities and recommended advanced classes for her. By high school, Corbett knew that she wanted to pursue a career in Science and participated in Project SEED, a program for gifted minorities sponsored by the American Chemical Society. She devoted her teenage summers to working in research laboratories, notably interning at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Labs and Stony Brook University where she studied Yersinia pseudotuberculosis pathogenesis.

Accepted into various Ivy League schools, choosing a college became an onerous task. Corbett followed her father’s advice and went “where there is love” and joined the University of Maryland Baltimore County on a full-ride Meyerhoff Scholarship Program. She worked as a laboratory technician at the University of Maryland School of Nursing while at college. She also was a biological sciences trainee at the National Institutes of Health where she worked on the pathogenesis of respiratory syncytial virus and a project on innovative vaccine platform advancement. In 2008, Corbett graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biology/biological sciences.

After graduation, she worked as a graduate research assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under principal investigator, Dr Aravinda de Silva, Corbett studied human antibody responses to dengue virus infection and the effects of dengue virus genetics on disease severity. For her doctoral dissertation, she worked as a visiting scholar at the Genetech Research Institute. In 2014, Corbett received her doctorate of philosophy in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Corbett went on to work as a research fellow at The National Institutes of Health. With Barney Graham, MD PhD and John Mascola, MD as the principal investigators, her research focused on respiratory virus pathogenesis and vaccine design. Aiming to discover mechanisms of viral pathogenesis and host immunity, she probed into the creation of new vaccines for coronaviruses. She analyzed means of developing vaccine antigens for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Corbett discovered that coronaviruses have spike proteins on their surface that were in creating an antibody. She identified a simple way of stabilizing the spike proteins making them more immunogenic and manufacturable.

Without knowing it, Corbett had come up with a vaccine that could save millions of lives.

To test and manufacture the virus, Corbett’s team partnered with Moderna. 66 days after determining the genetic code of the virus was determined, the vaccine entered its pilot clinical trial. Later broad clinical trials revealed that the vaccine had a 94% effectiveness rate in protecting against COVID-19. Since then, over 255 million doses of Corbett’s vaccine have been administered within the US. In 2022, Moderna generated a tremendous $18.4 billion in vaccine sales alone.

“It felt like I was making a decision every minute, and it got overwhelming. And that’s a really important lesson that I learned from this moment—you have to know when to say, ‘OK, I’ve done everything I can do, and now I need to delegate.’ Another important lesson I learned is that you have to trust your instincts. Because we were often making decisions about the design of experiments in real-time, we could not change our minds often. And in that case, you have to trust your instincts or else you will drive yourself and your team insane,” Corbett said about how she dealt with pressure during vaccine development.

Corbett is currently an assistant lecturer at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She established her viral immunology lab to not only inform vaccine development for coronaviruses but also other respiratory viruses. Working under the concept of pandemic preparedness, Corbett is building a concrete database of knowledge for other viruses.