At the beginning of the year, no one could have anticipated that most Americans would not be experiencing the rejuvenating spirit of Spring and forced to practice social distancing or self isolation. And yet, here we are as the coronavirus pandemic is now responsible for more American deaths in two months than the Vietnam war in nearly two decades.
As of Wednesday (April 29,) 1,043,595 positive COVID-19 cases have been recorded in the United States with 61,187 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, the total novel coronavirus infection numbers have now hit more than 3.2 million people and killed at least 227,000. It is also widely known that the Black Americans have been infected at higher rates resulting in more fatalities than other races, particularly in states with large urban populations like Michigan, Louisiana and Illinois. These tragic numbers are why a breakout of this magnitude is causing the global scientific community to literally race towards developing a vaccine to stop the spread and save millions of lives.
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Teams of scientists across the world are working around the clock to develop an effective vaccine which normally would take years to produce under normal circumstances. Nothing about this pandemic has been normal and so a vaccine is expected within the next 12 to 18 months, if not sooner. First, the efficacy of its use has to be determined and then any possible risks and side effects must be weighed all before it can be provided to the public.
“There’s no way you can go to market without being effective and safe,” said Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D. a senior research fellow and scientific lead for the team working on coronavirus vaccines and immunopathogenesis in the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) working on the research team with principal investigator Dr. Bernie Graham, who is her boss. Her work and research also informs Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus response team. Corbett’s job is to make sure the science falls in line with product development. “If something’s not effective, it won’t go into people. If something’s not safe, it won’t go into people in the general population.”
Corbett, 34, grew up in rural North Carolina. She moved on to earn her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her career has taken her into the lab as a biological sciences trainer at the NIH and as far away as Sri Lanka to serve as a visiting scholar at the Genetech Research Institute.
Vaccinologists like Corbett have been on the front lines to create a safe vaccine to go to market since the world first learned about the deadly coronavirus. For her and the rest of her colleagues at the NIH, where she’s a senior research fellow and scientific lead at its Vaccine Research Center, the process of getting something to the public so quickly may be rigorous, but it is critical.
Corbett reveals that the team is in its first phase of clinical trials, where a small sample of about 90 people have been tested. The next phase tests the ability of the vaccine to elicit an immunity in 500 people. A third goes up to 5,000 where the vaccine is tested for its ability to protect people from coronavirus infection. Licensing procedures will then follow.
Then there’s the daunting task of getting a public, particularly in the African American community, where people can be mistrustful of the pharmaceutical industry and in some cases leery of vaccines, to be on board with such an important development. Corbett said she understands the fears, but individuals should be aware of the level of safety consideration that goes into development, particularly when a vaccine would be administered to someone who is completely healthy.
“Vaccines, generally speaking...are the reason why several diseases have been essentially eradicated,” she continued. “Think about human papillomavirus [HPV], which is the causative virus for cervical cancer. Since that vaccine has been out, cervical cancer numbers have been dismal. It’s important for people to understand that in order for that level of eradication to occur for coronavirus, there has to be some level of community participation.”
This leads to herd immunity, which is when enough people in a population become immune to a virus and can limit and dissipate its spread. Vaccination speeds this process by introducing a weaker strain of a disease to an individual’s immune system, giving it instructions to recognize and attack it. That’s the logic behind every inoculation from seasonal flu shots to childhood measles vaccines.
The COVID-19 vaccine, however, is different and uses a protein from the virus that would be delivered by RNA — a carrier of genetic material — into a person, who would in turn respond to that protein by mounting an immune response.
“It’s not like we’re giving you a virus. We’re not giving you an infection,” she said. “We’re just telling your body if an infection is to come later, you can recognize the virus and you know what to do.”
The Black community, a population that has faced the abuses of systemic racism in medicine, is now disproportionately facing a heightened rate of coronavirus infections in many places. Recent preliminary information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 30 percent of COVID-19 cases are African American. The social distancing message was given to Black people, like others, to prevent virus spread, which it largely did not. Corbett has an idea as to why.
“I”m not so sure that message was...stated quickly enough and directly enough,” she said. What’s happening right now is not necessarily about vaccination, but our community’s lack of understanding about what social distancing may mean and also what the impact of it is.
“It’s hard to say you need to stay home or you need to not be around your friends, but why? And that ‘why’ may have not been translated that well,” said Corbett. The “why” is because the virus has a prominent community attack rate, which is the percentage of the population that could contract a disease in a population at risk during a particular interval of time (up to 40 percent, she says) where people can remain asymptomatic and go anywhere between 2 to 14 days between being infected and then showing symptoms.
Without a vaccine the only way to prevent disease spread is through social distancing, notes Corbett, “and that’s a hard thing to translate. And that’s understandable because we think about illness as visible; are you coughing or sneezing? Most of the time in this case, people aren’t.”
Still, Corbett warns that it would be necessary to get everyone vaccinated in order for it not to fail and that means vaccine makers have got to get the product distributed into all communities.
“If we don’t vaccinate just about everyone or at least a critical mass of people in every community, the vaccine will be unsuccessful on a worldwide level,” Corbett said, noting that a coronavirus vaccine would be part of a vaccine portfolio, administered for an acceptable inoculation like measles or polio shots. “It’s very clear what this virus can do and has done globally, not just inside of our community.”
Madison J. Gray is the senior editor for news at BET.com. You can find him on Twitter @@mjgraymedia.