Jul 8, 2021 · 9 min read

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett Discusses a Universal Coronavirus Vaccine, the Delta Variant, Science Diversity With Priscilla Chan

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A woman in a pink blouse smiles and a woman in a striped shirt tilts her head.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (left) and Priscilla Chan (right). (Photos courtesy of the University of Maryland, Batimore County and CZI)

CZI Co-Founder and Co-CEO Dr. Priscilla Chan recently interviewed leading coronavirus scientist, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, during an Instagram Live.

The two discussed a variety of topics — from Kizzmekia’s groundbreaking research to her perspective on the risk of COVID-19 variants and why she uses the term “vaccine inquisitiveness.”

As a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Kizzmekia was instrumental in the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. She recently joined the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health where she will lead a lab focused on discovering new vaccines for coronaviruses and other novel viruses that could threaten human health.

We have to reframe the way we speak about people’s decisions when it comes to their health. When I was meeting people, it wasn’t that they were so pronounced in their decision to not get the vaccine yet. It was just that they needed a couple of questions answered. And vaccine hesitancy actually just started to carry a very negative connotation.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett

When reflecting on her impactful career, Kizzmekia says her participation in the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program was critical to preparing her for the work she does today. The Meyerhoff Program is one of the most effective models in the country to help inspire, recruit and retain Black, Latino and Indigenous students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

That’s why, in 2019, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced a unique partnership to expand aspects of the Meyerhoff program to the University of California San Diego and the University of California Berkeley.

Below are a few of our favorite highlights from the discussion. Click each question to view its answer.

Note: The following excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is Kizzmekia Corbett’s New Role at Harvard’s School of Public Health?

Priscilla Chan: So let’s talk about the exciting news. I just heard that you’re building out your new lab at Harvard. What is the thing that you’re most excited about in your new role?

Kizzmekia Corbett: When you’re going around in this career trajectory and you’re like —‘oh, I want to have my own lab’ — no one ever tells you how scary it is. Right now, two weeks after starting at Harvard, I’m scared, but with that comes the excitement. I am very excited to curate my own individual, independent body of research fueled by this COVID-19 vaccine moment.

PC: Are you going to be studying how the general coronaviruses work or are you going to stay in the vaccine field?

KC: I’m going to be studying how coronaviruses basically trick the human immune system so they can hide from the human immune system and cause disease. If we know how those viruses do that, we’ll be able to inform coronavirus vaccine development.

PC: That’d be so amazing. I mean, I could just imagine a collection of these more universal vaccines so that we don’t have to go through flu season or cold season.

KC: I completely agree. Roughly 15 to 30% of the common cold is actually caused by coronaviruses that are very closely related to the virus that’s circulating now. But we don’t know much about those and we don’t really know how they continue to infect people on a year in and year out basis. And so that’s going to be one of the first notches of my research portfolio, and then we’ll go broader.

(Back To Questions)

Why Should We Use the Term “Vaccine Inquisitiveness?”

Priscilla Chan: You’re working with a real mission in mind: how to actually reach people who are hesitant about the vaccine. And I know you prefer to call it vaccine inquisitiveness. Can you explain why you try to frame it that way and how you try to reach those that might be more inquisitive?

Kizzmekia Corbett: We have to reframe the way we speak about people’s decisions when it comes to their health. When I was meeting people, it wasn’t that they were so pronounced in their decision to not get the vaccine yet. It was just that they needed a couple of questions answered. And vaccine hesitancy actually just started to carry a very negative connotation.

People who might fit in that category were actually very scared to ask questions because they felt like we might be looking down on them for asking. To say vaccine inquisitive means, okay, I’m here and I want to listen to you ask those questions and I want to also be able to answer them for you.

(Back To Questions)

Should We Be Concerned About COVID-19 Variants Such As the Delta Variant?

Priscilla Chan: I read these news headlines that I’m calling them ‘scary-ants.’ There’s all these variants including Alpha and Delta — am I still safe after having gotten the vaccine? How should I be thinking about that?

Kizzmekia Corbett: Okay. So do you know the Jay Z song? I got 99 problems, but…

PC: a variant ain’t one.

KC: If you are vaccinated I would turn my ear off to the variant story right now.

If someone has been fully vaccinated against the original virus, they are protected to some extent. Maybe the efficacy might drop down to the higher 80s or something of that nature, but one should be rest assured that they are protected against these variants, if they are vaccinated. If there’s ever a point where that idea changes, I promise to let everyone know.

(Back To Questions)

How was the COVID-19 Vaccine Developed So Quickly?

Priscilla Chan: I want to point out that I got the Moderna vaccine earlier this year. And it’s a messenger RNA vaccine. And I think a lot of people have had questions like: Why did it come online so quickly? Should I expect that all of my vaccines work this way now? Can you tell us more about that science?

Kizzmekia Corbett: The science is actually tried and true — our mRNA technology has been in development for more than a decade. And so there was a lot of science, both on the side of the platform, which is the messenger RNA, but then also the thing that is actually being delivered by that platform, which is the insert for the vaccine, which our team and our collaborators helped to run a lot of that science over the past six years.

(Back To Questions)

Why Do We Need More Diversity in STEM?

Priscilla Chan: There’s been a disproportionate impact on communities of color during this pandemic. One lens that we’ve taken at CZI is how do we actually bring more diversity into the people doing the work on the front lines? And you’re part of a program that has been trying to do that for a long time, The Meyerhoff Scholars Program. How do those throughlines come together for you?

Kizzmekia Corbett: I like to think my impact during the pandemic is largely because of me being in the Meyerhoff Program, which is this program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County that is for people from underrepresented minority groups to be tuned into STEM, and really pushes forward this idea that you can be a scientist.

Diversity matters and not just for a box-checking exercise, but it really matters for the health outcomes of everyone. If we’re all going to need to take the vaccines, then we should all be working towards them.

(Back To Questions)

How Can We Encourage Family, Friends and Communities To Get Vaccinated?

Priscilla Chan: How do you encourage people in communities to get vaccinated? So if there are folks in my life who are inquisitive, what should I say?

Kizzmekia Corbett: My strategy has been to say nothing until I’m asked, because a lot of the time what’s happening is people who are vaccine inquisitive, they haven’t been listened to yet. And so it is important for us to not over science them with what we know, but take in what their question is and what they might think they know or might think they understand, and then fill in the blanks from there.

(Back To Questions)

How Do You Talk to People About Participating in Clinical Research Trials?

Priscilla Chan: I’m passionate about diversifying the groups of people that actually participate in research — not just the scientists, but communities and individuals participating in different research projects. How do you talk to people about participating in research?

Kizzmekia Corbett: I actually have not gotten that great at that, except that I lead by example. When I was at the NIH, I donated every three weeks to stem cell patients. I’ve even had the flu put down my nose so that they could study my immune response.

Science gets to a point where you can’t understand it without understanding it in a human being. This is a very sticky situation because the way that clinical trials have been performed before, particularly in Black people and other marginalized communities, has not been fair. Luckily we live in a very different time where there is a system in place and checks and balances in place.

The first step is just saying, ‘I’m not doing this for me but I’m doing it for everyone else.’ And then the second step is to remember that it is actually your right to be informed around what is happening with your body. So you can ask all the questions that you want. You can actually just wake up on a random Sunday and say, I don’t want to do this anymore. And withdraw from any single clinical trial, and knowing those very slight facts, I think helps people to understand.

(Back To Questions)

To hear more from the conversation, watch the full video below. And to learn more about how the Meyerhoff Program is preparing the next generation of leaders in science, read Three Gen Zs Who Will Change the World.

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