Kizzmekia S Corbett, Ph.D, is a viral immunologist whose work focuses on propelling novel vaccine development for pandemic preparedness. She is a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Corbett is best known for leading the team that designed the mRNA-1273 vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes the disease Covid-19 — which was used in the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. However, she has gained expertise studying dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus and coronaviruses over the past 15 years. Corbett is the recipient of prestigious awards, such as the Benjamin Franklin Next Gen Award and the Salzman Memorial Award in Virology and was one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Year in 2021. She is a passionate advocate for STEM education and vaccine awareness, particularly in underserved communities.
The trailblazer recently spoke with HealthyWomen’s Editor-in-Chief Jaimie Seaton about how she became a scientist and the future of pandemics.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
HealthyWomen: You’ve had such a distinguished career and you’ve had such a huge impact on public health: Did you always wanted to be a scientist?
Dr. Corbett: Yes, since I was 16. I did an internship when I was 16 in a lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and that’s how I got interested in science.
HealthyWomen: Your undergraduate degree [from the University of Maryland] is in biology and sociology, so I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming an immunologist.
Dr. Corbett: I chose to major in biology and sociology. I actually do not have a second BS or BA, whatever it is, in sociology, I just have a secondary major. Nevertheless, I did that because I really wanted to understand the sociology of healthcare, and I wanted to make sure that I had a public health and public social slant to all of the science that I was doing, even though I am a hardcore scientist. It was HIV times, and I felt like a lot of the social injustices that affected health inequalities with HIV would be something that we would need to tackle from not just science and vaccines but from other things. And so [the sociology] helped to round out my career.
HealthyWomen: And what led you to viral immunology?
Dr. Corbett: If you’re interested in vaccines, you have to understand how to trick the immune system to defend itself against pathogens, so that’s why.
HealthyWomen: And when you went into the field, did you imagine that you would lead the team that developed Moderna’s Covid vaccine and before the age of 40, I want to add? Which is so impressive.
Dr. Corbett: No, I did not.
HealthyWomen: I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about that experience of developing the vaccine. I read that you worked, understandably, non-stop from the beginning of the pandemic. Can you tell me a little bit about what that process was like or the experience was like for you.
Dr. Corbett: It was stressful. It took a lot of time. We worked from before the sun rose until after the sun set every single day for at least a year and a half. It felt like everything was an emergency. It was such a huge burden, not just from a scientific perspective but also from just a social perspective too, because there was so much quote-unquote, vaccine hesitancy.
Without giving stepwise accounts, I think that’s the gist of it. It was just a very stressful, almost inhumane [chuckle] workload and I still feel like I haven’t recovered from it quite frankly.
We didn’t really give ourselves the bandwidth or the grace to reset, honestly. It feels like we went from shutdown to back to work. It feels like there’s this rush to get back to normal when honestly, things are not normal [chuckle]. And you’ve spent a year and a half living differently. So that’s a side point.
President Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci visit Corbett in her lab, 2021 (Photo/NIH/Chia-Chi Charlie Chang)
HealthyWomen: It’s a very important point though, because I think you’re right, that it’s universal. And I have a question about that a little bit further on, but I wanted to ask you about the omicron-specific booster being developed for the fall. I’ve read reports that the booster may be designed specifically for the BA.5 strain, so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that. Secondly, should people who need a booster get it now or wait for the new booster in the fall?
Dr. Corbett: The reason an omicron-specific booster has been suggested is because the omicron virus is acting a little bit differently than the original viruses from, say, the early parts of 2020, for which the original vaccines were modeled after. So omicron is generally causing more mild disease, omicron is more easily transmitted. And also because of the mutations in omicron, there is a decrease in the amount of antibodies that bind or neutralize omicron viruses if someone has been vaccinated, or even infected previously. So when you think about boosting an immune response, you basically are saying, “I want to reset my immune response to a level that is optimally protective against whatever virus it may be.”
In this case, it would be the current SARS-CoV-2 or the virus that causes Covid-19 that’s circulating, which is omicron. The data suggests that boosting with an omicron variant of that original vaccine gives you a better chance of being optimally protected.
And for that reason, there are several different factors that go into when someone should boost. One of them is obviously the time since your last shot. The other one is age. And then one of the other factors is the virus that’s circulating, how that’s different from the virus that was circulating before and how much virus is circulating.
People who are vaccinated and up to date on all of their vaccines, as has been suggested by the FDA recommendations — whether it be three shots if you are under the age of 55, or four shots if you are above the age of 55 — then you are up to date on your current boosters and you are optimally protected, considering the current circumstances of the pandemic. The reason we are preparing for the fall is because the idea with respiratory viruses, in general, similar to how the flu operates, is that you get more severe waves during the cooler months because that’s just how endemic viruses tend to work.
HealthyWomen: Just to be completely clear, if a person is over 55 and has not had their second booster by this point, do you recommend that they wait for the one coming in the fall or go ahead and get that second one now and then see what happens in the fall?
Dr. Corbett: I absolutely recommend that people are boosted exactly to the time of which it is recommended to them. So yes, you should go get a booster now.
HealthyWomen: You referenced a little bit before that by this time many people thought Covid would be gone or that we’d have it under control, and now we have monkeypox on the scene. Do you see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel?
Dr. Corbett: I absolutely do feel/see a light at the end of the tunnel, and I don’t know when that light will come. I think that the way that we have been thinking about what the light is at the end of the tunnel might have to be adjusted given the circumstances. In March 2020, for example, when the clinical trials started, the light at the end of the tunnel was a complete end to the pandemic, very quickly getting a vaccine out all over the world, not foreseeing variants circulating and all of these things. I think now what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like is endemicity.
It’s certainly where some would say, at least for our country, we are already. So this just means that the virus is circulating at kind of a steady state, that that circulation is predictable, that our vaccine responses or immunity are at a population level that is generally protective for most people, and that the virus is able to be contained with whatever types of mitigated procedures or public health measures we would take, whether they be masks or otherwise.
And then also the other thing we don’t necessarily talk about a lot, but is super important when you think about endemicity, is whether the disease is treatable and that there are effective therapy options that are widely available — and also that we use them. All of these things coming together will lead to a so-called light at the end of the tunnel, but what we cannot expect is that the virus will ever go away. We are going to have to use those four pillars — predictable, containable, preventable and treatable — as a measure of where we are and how close to the light at the end of the tunnel we are.
When we think about light at the end of the tunnel, we think about walking through the tunnel and immediately seeing a light. [chuckle] But when I use that analogy, one of the things I like to remind people is that you still have to walk to get to the light, and when you see it, you still have to do things along your path to make sure that you get to the light. And I think that that’s where we are now. We can see the light, but we just have to make sure that we’re doing the right things along our path to get to that light.
HealthyWomen: Do you think there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we interact in public in order to protect ourselves from current and future pandemics?
Dr. Corbett: Yes, I do think that there needs to be a fundamental shift. What that really looks like, honestly, is going to have to be trial and error, but it’s going to have to be a very concerted and intentional effort. I think that we don’t always have intention in the way that we communicate with the public. Sometimes that communication is not data-driven. I’d like to get to a point where we do have a way to reach out to the public around this pandemic and future pandemics and science and all of these things in a more data-driven way, in a more intentional and thoughtful way.
HealthyWomen: In that vein, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions the public has about vaccines?
Dr. Corbett: One is that vaccines cause autism. I think that that is one of the foundational pieces of misinformation that lend to a lot of vaccine inquisitiveness or hesitancy. And I also think this isn’t necessarily a misconception about vaccines, but I do think that we haven’t fully given the lay public an understanding of how the immune system works.
So there are certain misconceptions, like natural remedies or preventative measures like drinking sea moss or tumeric provide your immune system with the same protective capacity as vaccines, and that’s just not true. Sure, you want your immune system to be as healthy as possible, so eating nutritious meals and all of these things come into play with that, but the only way that your immune system is going to specifically know how to fight a particular virus or pathogen is if you teach it in a very specific way that only infection or vaccines can do.
And then there are misconceptions that if you forgo vaccines and instead train your immune system via natural infection [we can reach herd immunity]. Particularly with viruses, even with the types of mortality rates we have with Covid-19, a ridiculous number of people would have to die in order to get the herd immunity, if we depended on natural infection only.
And you do not want to take on the risk of a viral infection of any kind when there is a vaccine that’s available that can train your immune system in a healthy way.
HealthyWomen: Moving back to the subject of your career, you’re such an important role model for girls and girls of color, especially in science, given that there’s such a lack of women and women of color. What do you want your impact to be and how do you see yourself in that role?
Dr. Corbett: I get asked a lot about legacy, and I think that the most that I can ask for is that girls or people of color look at me and they see that they have endless possibilities for becoming a scientist, for doing things that generally people don’t do in a lifetime, like developing and inventing a vaccine. People say that they aspire to be like me, but I honestly would like for my legacy to be that I inspire them so much that they are inspired to be better than me and more successful than me. And that, because I have carved out certain spaces that generally people who look like me have not been able to infiltrate, so to speak, like professorship at Harvard and all of these things, that hopefully the road and their path is a little bit easier. That’s all I can really ask.