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Honoring Healthcare Heroes Leading COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Rollout During Black History Month

By Amy Bell

February is Black History Month—a time meant to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans and honor the significant impacts they have had on all facets of life throughout U.S. history. As we witness the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado, it is important to recognize that the development of this critical tool that will help mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic would not have been possible without healthcare and scientific leaders from the Black community—leaders whose efforts, contributions and mark on society will be celebrated for years to come. Here we highlight just a few of these remarkable individuals:

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, lead scientist on the Moderna Vaccine Development Team

You may have heard the name Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett in the news recently. Dr. Corbett is a senior research fellow and scientific lead for the Vaccine Research Center’s Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She has been recognized and lauded nationally for her role as one of the lead scientists on the team that developed the Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. An article from CNBC News noted that Dr. Corbett “built on her six years of experience studying the spike proteins of other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS in order to design the vaccine within two days of the novel coronavirus being discovered.” When asked about the input of African American scientists in the vaccine process, the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci immediately spoke of Dr. Corbett’s indispensable role in developing the vaccine. Dr. Corbett hopes that seeing her role in the scientific process will give young scientists and people of color confidence in the vaccine. In an interview with ABC News, Dr. Corbett remarked, “I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure so to speak. I felt it was important to do that because the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of color who have often worked behind the scenes.”

Ken Frazier

Kenneth Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck & Co.

Kenneth Frazier is the first African American man to lead a major pharmaceutical company that is included on the Fortune 500 list. He has held numerous positions at Merck since he started with the company in 1992. Frazier started as General Counsel in the Public Affairs Division before being promoted to Senior General Counsel. In 2006 he assumed the role of Executive Vice President, and in 2011, he became the CEO of the company. His work as the CEO has steered Merck towards prioritizing research funding over meeting a year’s target earnings. He has spoken up about making America more equitable and urged big industries to play an active role during the current COVID-19 health crisis. While Merck is no longer working to develop their two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, they are in the process of developing a pair of potential treatments for COVID-19.

Rosalind Brewer, future CEO of Walgreens

Rosalind Brewer is the current Chief Operations Offers at Starbucks and former Chief Executive Officer of Sam’s Club. She will assume the role of Walgreens Chief Executive Officer in March 2021. This move will make her the only Black woman currently leading a Fortune 500 company. According to Fortune, there have only been 19 Black chief executives of Fortune 500 companies since the Fortune 500 list was first published in 1955. Brewer will oversee Walgreens’ key role in rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine to millions of Americans. 

Sandra Lindsay, first American to get a COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials

Sandra Lindsay made headlines in December 2020 when she became the first American to get a dose of COVID-19 vaccine after it had been approved for emergency use through the FDA. Lindsay has been a nurse since 1994 and oversees five critical care units at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. When Lindsay signed up to get the vaccine, she wanted to lead by example for not only her staff, but also as a Black woman. In an interview with CNBC News, Lindsay stated, “It was good that people see me as a Black woman taking it. I’m well aware of what has happened in the past. But I’m not afraid… what I’m afraid of more is getting the virus.” After getting her vaccine, she said that her goal was not to be the first one to take the vaccine, “but to inspire people who look like me who are skeptical; I trust science.”

Michael Rouse, first Moderna phase III trial participant in Colorado

In August 2020, Michael Rouse signed up to participate in the Moderna COVID-19 clinical trials at University of Colorado Hospital (UC Health). In November of 2020, Rouse shared his experience in a guest opinion in the Denver Post, discussing why he felt an obligation to volunteer for the trial, and how he knows that this vaccine has been thoroughly tested. Rouse writes, “A concern I had was that the researchers were cutting corners, but I know firsthand that the bio pharmaceutical researchers are employing a wide range of precautions to ensure that, when completed, a COVID-19 vaccine is both safe and effective.” Now that the vaccine is available and being distributed through prioritization phases, Rouse has played an active role in encouraging others to take the vaccine when it’s their turn. In an interview with UC Health, Rouse said, “The vaccine is definitely better than getting COVID-19, the side-effects were all short-term.” Michael Rouse is also a member of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Task Force and works to provide input and expertise to help advance vaccine equity in the state of Colorado. To hear about Michael’s experience during the Moderna vaccine trial, watch his video testimonial.

Dr. Gabriel Lockhart, Pulmonary and Critical Care Physician

Dr. Gabriel Lockhart wears many hats in the Denver-Metro medical community. Dr. Lockhart is the Director of the Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, as well as a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health. Dr. Lockhart is one of the many healthcare providers that have treated COVID-19 patients on the frontlines of the pandemic in both Colorado and New York. Additionally, Dr. Lockhart is a member of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce, and has taken an active role in educating the public and his patients around the COVID-19 vaccine. In a meeting of the Taskforce, Dr. Lockhart highlighted the value in honoring the history of unethical medical treatment of people of color as a critical step in paving a path forward. “The contributions from communities of color to the healthcare system have historically often been stolen or appropriated from us,” he said. “This vaccine equity work is a way to get at that history, to right the wrongs, to ensure that we are no longer left behind, and that our contributions are not taken from us; this is a way for us to move forward.”

This list of individuals only scratches the surface of the many Black heroes working in healthcare, public health, and vaccine research that have contributed to the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines; to everyone doing this incredible work, thank you. 

Want to learn more about the Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce? Visit www.coloradovaccinequity.org or www.equidadvacunacolorado.org and stay tuned for another blog post that highlights additional members of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce and their roles in advancing vaccine equity across Colorado.

Amy Bell is Immunize Colorado’s Immunization Outreach & Education Coordinator, on assignment with the organization through the CO-mmunity Corps AmeriCorps VISTA Program.

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