Anthony Fauci has praised the work of Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American scientist who the leading US public health expert said was “at the forefront” of the development of a leading coronavirus vaccine.
In a conversation about mistrust of Covid-19 vaccines among Black people in an online forum with the National Urban League, Fauci said Corbett was one of two leaders of the team which created a vaccine found to be 94% effective.
Corbett’s team at the National Institutes of Health worked with pharmaceutical company Moderna to develop the vaccine – one of two found to be more than 90% effective – which is expected to be authorised for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration this month.
Asked to talk about the involvement of African American scientists in the vaccination effort, Fauci said: “That [Moderna] vaccine was actually developed in my institute’s vaccine research centre by a team of scientists led by Dr Barney Graham and his close colleague Dr Kizzmekia Corbett, or Kizzy Corbett. Kizzy is an African American scientist who is right at the forefront of the development of the vaccine.
“So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman. And that is just a fact.”
Research by the Covid Collaborative, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and UnidosUS found that just 14% of Black Americans trust that a vaccine will be safe and 18% trust it will be effective.
The study found that many concerns were based on America’s racist history of medical research, including the Tuskegee syphilis experiment between 1932 and 1972, in which more than 100 Black men are estimated to have died.
Fauci said he fully respected scepticism around the vaccine and said it was important to address the historical reasons behind it. He also emphasised that scientists, not politicians, are in charge of approving coronavirus vaccines.
Corbett, 34, who has a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, joined the NIH’s Vaccine Research Centre in 2014 as a postdoctoral fellow.
While at school, she was chosen to take part in Project Seed, a programme for gifted minority students that meant she could study chemistry in labs at UNC, reported the Washington Post. She was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Maryland Baltimore county and did a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health.
When she started on Fauci’s team six years ago, Corbett told ABC News, she had no idea she would work on developing a vaccine. But amid a pandemic which began with reports of a respiratory outbreak in Wuhan, China, in early January, her team managed to create a vaccine in less than a year.
Corbett, who was part of a group of scientists who met Donald Trump in March, said it was important as a Black scientist to be visible.
“I felt that it was important to do that because the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of colour who have often worked behind the scenes and essentially [who have] done the dirty work for these large efforts toward a vaccine,” she said.
Corbett said it will take time to rebuild trust in Black communities, who have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, a process she said needed to be done in a “brick-by-brick fashion”.
She told CNN: “What I say to people firstly is that I empathise, and then secondly is that I’m going to do my part in laying those bricks. And I think that if everyone on our side, as physicians and scientists, went about it that way, then the trust would start to be rebuilt.”
As of Monday, the pandemic had infected more than 16.2 million people and killed nearly 300,000 in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.