Meet the Black students who were instrumental in developing the first Covid-19 shots
It was a meeting that changed their lives forever.
The year was 2020, and reports had emerged from China that a never-before-seen coronavirus was spreading quickly, sickening hundreds of people and turning deadly.
More than 7,000 miles away in Bethesda, Maryland, tensions were high in Dr. Barney Graham’s lab at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health. He convened a meeting of the lab’s scientists who were developing vaccines for other types of respiratory viruses.
Among about two dozen scientists in Graham’s lab were three young students: Olubukola Abiona, Geoffrey Hutchinson and Cynthia Ziwawo.
“We were sitting in that meeting, and Dr. Graham said, ‘It’s time to start thinking about running the drill,’ ” said Hutchinson, now 33 and a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Washington.
“At the Vaccine Research Center, the mindset is sort of like anytime there’s something like that spreading, you can use it as an opportunity for a drill — a drill for the big one — if there’s going to be a real pandemic,” he said.
Courtesy Geoffrey Hutchinson
Geoffrey Hutchinson working in the NIH lab on coronavirus vaccine research.
The “drill” consisted of Abiona and Hutchinson making lab versions of this novel coronavirus’ protein. As with other types of coronaviruses, the scientists knew that this one carried a structure called a spike protein, which it uses to enter human cells and cause infections. Next, the protein went to Ziwawo, who tested the kind of immune responses a vaccine would elicit in response to it.
“We knew we were doing things that were important, but then it was like ‘Oh, wow, this is really big,’ ” Ziwawo said. “And then Fauci is coming to the lab.”
Shortly after the official drill was launched, Dr. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced to the world that the NIH was working on a vaccine against the coronavirus, part of an existing collaboration with the biotechnology company Moderna.
What the world didn’t know at the time was that those three students — Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo — were doing the foundational work for those vaccines to eventually save lives.
‘It was just all hands on deck’
At the lab, Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo worked under renowned immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, then an NIH senior research fellow who guided them through their experiments and testing. The students hadn’t known each other before working together in the lab.
“At that point, it was just all hands on deck, and we were ready to go,” Corbett said of developing the Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, adding that the team felt confident and trusted each other through their work.
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“The work that these four people did in particular, I think, has been underappreciated and somewhat heroic, in my opinion,” said Graham, who was deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the time.
“Their work led to not just the Moderna vaccine rapidly entering clinical trials but also to the discovery of monoclonal antibodies that were used for treatments and informed the development of other coronavirus vaccines, as well,” he said.
Graham, who is now a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine and inaugural director of the school’s newly announced David Satcher Global Health Equity Institute, added that he made an effort to select a cohort of scientists in his lab who reflected the diversity of the rest of the United States in race, ethnicity and background.
“When he’s brought in different people in his laboratory from different backgrounds and ZIP codes and ethnicities, he’s had the opportunity to engage with them and understand how they think about science, how they would apply discoveries and how those discoveries would be integrated into a community differently,” said Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and CEO of the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“They’re going to ask questions from a different lens because of the differences they’ve experienced throughout life.”
The need for greater diversity in medicine has been an ongoing challenge for the scientific community. Only about 5.7% of physicians in the United States are Black or African American, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. In the communities they serve, an estimated 12% of the US population is Black or African American.
Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo are well aware of the lack of diversity in science and medicine. This week, as they reunited in person for the first time since working together in that NIH lab during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, they discussed it and their own journeys to where they are today – including working hard in school, learning lessons when lab experiments failed and chasing curiosity.
Their nostalgia quickly turned to laughter when Abiona joked that after she left the NIH, she felt like her life mirrored that of the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, a fictional character with a double life as a typical teenager by day and a famous pop singer at night.
Abiona described herself as a medical student by day and a Covid-19 vaccine researcher by night, finishing some of the pivotal work produced at one of the most renowned labs in the world and helping develop a lifesaving vaccine in record time.
As the trio met for lunch at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta ahead of the inaugural Dr. David Satcher Global Health Equity Summit, hosted by the Morehouse School of Medicine and KPMG LLP, each grew emotional when they reflected on what they admired about each other.
While working side by side in Graham’s lab, Abiona, whose family is from Nigeria, and Ziwawo, whose family is Malawian, bonded over choosing to be doctors without the typical pressure some children face from their parents to pursue medicine — while acknowledging that they somehow still ended up giving in to the African stereotype of becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer.
The two are now in pursuit of medical degrees: Ziwawo, 25, is a fourth-year student at Indiana University School of Medicine, and Abiona, 27, is a third-year dual-degree medical and Ph.D. student at Case Western Reserve University.
Olubukola Abiona, left, and Cynthia Ziwawo bonded over choosing to be doctors without the typical pressure some children face from their parents.
Abiona said she admired Ziwawo’s confidence and determination. Ziwawo said she saw Abiona as a mentor who made her feel welcome in the lab.
All three students grew up with a genuine interest in science and medicine. Ziwawo knew that she wanted to be a doctor since the age of 5. Abiona fell in love with science later, as a teenager, after doing a science and technology program in high school.
Hutchinson always thought science was interesting, but his passion for studying infectious diseases grew after his time in Mozambique. As he studied protein and the role it would play in the design of vaccines, he would often reflect on his time in a rural town in the northern part of the country, where, before joining the NIH lab, he served in the Peace Corps and taught chemistry to high school students.
He saw firsthand the devastating illnesses, such as hepatitis B, that easily could have been prevented with vaccinations. But many of the children there didn’t have access to such life-saving vaccines.
“The dormitory actually had to kick a bunch of students out of the dorms. They had chronic viral infections, something that we all get vaccinated against here” in the United States, Hutchinson said.
Abiona and Ziwawo both admired Hutchinson’s compassion.
Geoffrey Hutchinson served in the Peace Corps and taught chemistry to high school students in Mozambique.
The three students had hope in the world’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic much sooner than many other people did.
The rest of the world cheered when the first Covid-19 shots went into arms — but for Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo, the moment came much earlier, when their work indicated that the vaccine elicited an immune response in lab tests.
“It will turn yellow when it tells you, ‘Yes, you have a response,’ ” Ziwawo said about the tests. “That’s when I understood the gravity of what we were doing.”
They saw the results and cheered.
The fruits of Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo’s labor were evident this week as the United States began to roll out updated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines.
The updated vaccines “validate the work we did” in the early days of the pandemic, Graham said. “It’s now established a new pathway for developing new and better vaccines.”
The mRNA vaccines have been updated to teach the body to fight the XBB.1.5 subvariant of the coronavirus and other closely related strains that are currently circulating.
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“Barring the emergence of a markedly more virulent variant, the FDA anticipates that the composition of COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated annually, as is done for the seasonal influenza vaccine,” the US Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Monday when it signed off on the new vaccines.
On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the vaccines for everyone 6 months and older.
Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo all confirmed Wednesday that although they haven’t made their appointments yet, they plan to get the updated shots.
“Booster me up,” Ziwawo proclaimed.