Black History Month: North Carolina scientist leads COVID-19 vaccine charge

Updated: Feb. 15, 2021 at 9:50 AM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV/CBS News) - A scientist from the small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina is making a big difference in the fight against COVID-19.

Doctor Kizzmekia Corbett, 34, is being recognized by health leaders as someone who played an instrumental role in the development of the Moderna Vaccine.

“We have taken a lot of the knowledge that we have gained over the last six years and applied it to a fairly revolutionary vaccine platform in collaboration with Moderna,” Corbett told CBS News.

In March 2020, Corbett walked then President Donald Trump through research at the National Institutes of Health. Two weeks after the tour, Corbett and her team started the first stage of clinical trials. The distribution of the Moderna vaccine came about within 10 months.

“The vaccine teaches the body how to fend off a virus, because it teaches the body, how to look for the virus by basically just showing the body the spike protein of the virus,” Corbett explained. “The body then says, oh, we’ve seen this protein before. Let’s go fight against it. That’s how it works.”

Since the roll out, millions of Americans have received first and second doses including countless people in North and South Carolina.

However, praise for Corbett comes as health leaders share concern over the growing racial disparity in the vaccine distribution across the country.

At Atrium Health’s mass vaccination event at Bank of America Stadium, 20,000 people got their first dose of the covid-19 vaccine in the last weekend of January. Only 30% were people of color.

Experts say a number of factors could contribute to the disparity including a deep distrust of the medical industry by black Americans because of a history of mistreatment.

For example, Henrietta Lacks was a cancer patient in Baltimore whose cancer cells were used without her permission. The cells, named HeLa cells after Lacks, were used in billions of dollars worth of medical research. Decades later the National Institutes of Health reached a non-monetary agreement with her family.

Similarly, the Tuskegee experiment which started in the 1930s, looked to examine the long-term effects of syphilis and did not properly treat infected black men regardless of the suffering it caused, according to the CDC.

The Biden administration has said racial equity will be a foundation of its covid-19 response. On Tuesday, the white house announced a program to ship doses of the vaccine to federally funded clinics in underserved areas.

“To be honest, I didn’t realize the level of impact that my visibility might have,” Corbett said. “I do my work because I love my work.”

Corbett also encouraged people who are hesitant to get the vaccine, to utilize resources available online.

“Really take advantage of the level of transparency that we are attempting,” Corbett told CBS news. “There are levels of transparency in this process that I haven’t even seen before, such as FDA hearings and meet briefings being broadcast online and live data coming out almost instantly.”

Copyright 2021 WBTV. CBS News contributed to this article. All rights reserved.