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    Dr. Corbett Is In: Getting Vaccinated to See the 96th Black History Month

    By Andrea Shorter–

    Happy Birthday, Black History Month! This year you are 95 years old. Born in 1926 as “Negro History Week” as a creation of historian and educator Carter G. Woodson, you eventually became a month-long celebration in the U.S. bicentennial year of 1976 to coincide with the February birthdays of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President and emancipator Abraham Lincoln. Of note, February was also the birth month of civil rights icon Rosa Parks—on February 4, she would have been 108 years of age.

    Since your last visit in 2020, the story of Black America can best be described as a continued and epic journey of resilience, reckoning, remembrance, and renewal.

    A year ago, we experienced the first loss of an American life to the then fast-emerging coronavirus pandemic. To date, over 27 million people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, and by the end of this February it is projected that we will have lost 500,000 American lives to coronavirus. The lack of truth, urgency, and competency in response to this massive public health crisis by the former president and his administration only served to highlight and worsen existing inequities in health care, economics, and other impacts on people of color. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Black Americans are dying at three times the rates of white Americans. Now under a new president—the former Vice President to the first Black President Barack Obama—an aggressive plan for producing and equitable distribution of viable vaccines is underway.

    Still, because of the inhumane and unethical abuse of Black people as pharmaceutical tests subjects, namely the famously deceptive Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male between 1932–1972 by the CDC, building trust in the safety of what presents as a lifesaving vaccine is paramount in 2021.

    President Biden and Vice President Harris—the obvious major Black History maker of 2021—were publicly inoculated with their first and second doses of vaccine in their campaign to encourage the squeamish and ensure the skeptical of the vaccine’s safety. During her broadcast and live-stream of being vaccinated at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Harris spoke of her late mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan’s affiliation with the NIH as a cancer scientist and researcher.

    Having grown up with a renowned biomedical scientist, she asserted that the Biden-Harris response to this pandemic will be transparent and guided by science versus politics and denial. For those of us who had the honor of meeting her mother, an inspiring impression of her was her dedication and high ethical standards as a scientist to improve the human condition. Like her daughter, I do hope her story as a woman of color leading potentially lifesaving biomedical research will engender trust where needed about the types of people likely working to produce the current vaccines, and the vaccines themselves.

    Give the pandemic and the current Black History Month, I wish to call attention to another respected leader in her field: Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett.

    Dr. Corbett is an immunologist and research fellow, and is the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Vaccine Research Center (VRC). She is described by Dr. Anthony Fauci as being “right at the forefront of the development of the (coronavirus) vaccine.”

    Dr. Corbett is African American. To some it might sound simple and maybe even insulting to think that a Black American is a key leader developing the vaccines that could save us all from coronavirus and could engender a little trust and confidence amongst understandably skeptical Black Americans.

    The nightmare of the Tuskegee experiments officially ended 49 years ago. The traumatic effects of this singular episode in scientific mistreatment of Black subjects in a controlled study still lingers. However, thousands of people are now subject as pedestrians to being potential fatalities of an uncontrolled virus.

    With thousands dying daily of coronavirus, if lifting up Dr. Corbett and her critical role as a talented and trusted scientist working to save lives encourages or helps promote getting the vaccines, let this 95th Black History Month shine a spotlight on her work.

    Just knowing of Dr. Corbett’s role in combatting this epic crisis can save lives. It sounds simple, yes, but knowledge is power. I expect we will have Dr. Corbett to thank mightily along with her many other colleagues in science—not politics—for keeping us safer and alive to see the 96th Black History Month.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights and marriage equality. A Co-Founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    Published on February 11, 2021