Agents of Impact | April 17, 2020

Kizzmekia Corbett, National Institutes of Health

The team at


ImpactAlpha, Apr. 17Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett had a jump on COVID-19. The viral immunologist has been studying coronaviruses like SARS and MERS since she arrived at the National Institutes of Health in 2014. Now, as scientific lead on the Coronavirus team at the NIH, she plans to make COVID-19 a preventable disease by fall.

Corbett and her team at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, working with Seattle biotech company Moderna, last month launched the world’s first clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine, just 66 days after Chinese scientists revealed the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus online (NIH scientists took 20 months to get a SARS vaccine into stage-one clinical trials back in 2003).

Corbett stunned CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta this week when she said the COVID-19 vaccine could be available for frontline healthcare workers as soon as this fall and for the general population by next spring. Kizzy, as those close to Corbett call her, is 34. 

Corbett and her NIH colleague Olubukola Abiona were Meyerhoff Scholars at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The program, which puts Black students on research Ph.D. tracks, also supported U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, as well as Darian Cash, a scientist at Moderna who is working with Corbett on the vaccine, one of more than 40 viable candidates now in development worldwide.

“There’s kind of a general understanding that — and not just for science — diversity is key to productivity,” Corbett told The News of Orange County in her hometown of Hillsborough, North Carolina. “In order to have diverse ideas you have to have a pool of diverse backgrounds.”

Keith Harmon, the scholarship’s program director, says he’s not surprised Corbett is on the verge of a vaccine. “There is such ability, untapped, unrecognized and un-nurtured among students, all our students, particularly among our underrepresented minority students,” he told NBC News. If we accept that as normal, he says, “you really have to wonder what serious challenges we leave unsolved.