Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire Recounts the 66 Days to the COVID Vaccine


There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black — a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combatting inequities. That’s why, this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.

It’s still hard to look back on those 66 days leading up to the COVID-19 vaccine. Even before the country faced a full-on lockdown, Kizzmekia S. Corbett-Helaire, PhD, suspected what lay ahead. She remembers calling it a pandemic on Feb. 24, 2020, tagging the World Health Organization on X (formerly known as Twitter), even though WHO didn’t use the same terminology until March. “I remember sitting my mom on her bed and telling her, ‘I don’t know what’s going on right now, but . . . this is going to be far bigger than we could probably ever imagine,'” she tells POPSUGAR.

As a viral immunologist at the National Institute of Health (NIH), Dr. Corbett-Helaire and her team were tasked with developing a vaccine to protect against COVID-19. From a purely scientific perspective, it was the kind of challenge you waited for your entire career. But game-changing research feels different when so many lives are at stake.

In pursuit of solutions, Dr. Corbett-Helaire started spending 16-20 hours a day at the lab, completely isolated from the rest of the world. “Quite frankly, I have not yet found the words, and it still makes me choke up because it’s just . . .” she cuts off, trying to find a way to succinctly summarize the trauma felt in those early days. “Those were very hard times for all of us.”

With the clock ticking and the pandemic continuing to unfold, Dr. Corbett-Helaire went to church less and less. She didn’t work out anymore because, in her mind, those precious hours could be better spent in the lab. “As one of the people who had the only tool out of it, it was so hard to experience. People were dying, and you knew that more people would die if you didn’t hurry and if you didn’t do a great job,” Dr. Corbett-Helaire remembers.

“I was saving myself. I was saving my family. I was saving an entire world.”

“The people that were dying were people that looked like my family. In my mom’s age group, in my grandmother’s age group. I mean, I think seven out of nine of my aunts and uncles have diabetes. I was scared for them, but I had to leave them there to come back to DC to do this vaccine thing,” she says. “There’s so many levels to the pressure. I was saving myself. I was saving my family. I was saving an entire world.”

After weeks of relentless stress, Dr. Corbett-Helaire finally reached a point where she had to re-center herself. That meant meditating, attending virtual church sessions, and even waking up at 3 a.m. just so she could fit in an hour-long workout before work. “I had to protect my spirit or the vaccine would’ve failed, because there is no way that you can do a job of that level without a protected self,” she says.

Dr. Corbett-Helaire and her team sent their vaccine to clinical trial in partnership with biotechnology company Moderna on Feb. 24, 2020. The first Moderna shot was injected into the first human as a part of its phase one trial a mere 66 days after Chinese scientists initially shared the viral genome behind SARS-CoV-2 with the NIH on Jan. 10, 2020.

Pfizer — another biotech company conducting clinical trials at the same time — received their efficacy results first in November 2020, indicating that the novel mRNA technology used in both vaccines was effective against the virus. “SCIENCE WINS!!! This is GREAT news for mRNA technology, AWESOME for the stabilized prefusion spike antigen,” Dr. Corbett-Helaire wrote on X on Nov. 9, 2020. “I am in tears.” The official phase three trial results for the Moderna vaccine came shortly after, with data showing the vaccine was nearly 95 percent effective at protecting against COVID. “I just remember crying,” Dr. Corbett-Helaire tells POPSUGAR. “All of the trauma was somewhere deep down, suppressed really, and the relief of the trial results just let it all come out.”

Still, there’s a lot that weighs heavily on Dr. Corbett-Helaire’s heart, from the level of communications to the time it took to develop the vaccine. She remembers going to a wedding and offering a guest something to eat (“me being Southern and hospitable”) only for them to reveal they hadn’t been able to taste in more than a year due to long COVID.

“People always talk about how fast the vaccine response was and complain about it almost in that way,” she says, referencing those who equate the vaccine’s accelerated timeline with unreliable results. “But for me, that type of anecdote makes me realize that it could have been faster. We may have failed a few people because it didn’t come fast enough,” she says, thinking of the wedding guest she recently encountered. But Dr. Corbett-Helaire doesn’t belong in the same sentence as the word “failure.” While facing the same kind of fear and isolation as the rest of the world, her first priority was always finding a way to make the virus more manageable (and, by definition, less deadly). When it comes to heroes in the health space, her humanity is the very thing that makes her so super.

In honor of this, the Board of Commissioners of Hillsborough, NC, where Dr. Corbett-Helaire was raised, named Jan. 12 “Kizzy Corbett Day,” although she admits she almost forgot to celebrate this year. “On those days, I do a lot of self-reflection, and I try to think back to the year of the pandemic when everything was happening,” she says. “Given how busy we are and almost the necessity to just keep going . . . we forget that it was a damn pandemic.”

That said, should history choose to repeat itself, you’d be hard pressed to find Dr. Corbett-Helaire anywhere near the lab. “I say this facetiously, but if there’s another pandemic — if I have that feeling that something’s going on and it’s going to be a big deal — I’m getting on a flight,” she jokes. On a serious note, Dr. Corbett-Helaire knows that COVID-19 is far from over. But the world is different now, and that’s largely thanks to her contributions. “People were dying, and I was working 90 hours a week,” she recalls, adding that she’s grateful we’re no longer there. “We are in a different space, and I am very glad.”

Image Source: Kent Dayton

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