There were a number of high-profile issues which dominated headlines in America and around the world during this year of 2020. None were more important than the COVID-19 outbreak and efforts to control and combat the pandemic.

Along with the battle against the coronavirus, issues of racial inequality were highlighted across the United States and around the world during the year just past. So, the selection of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett as the 2020 American of the Year is particularly important.

Dr. Corbett is a senior research fellow and the scientific lead for the coronavirus vaccines and immunopathogenesis team in the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory of the National Institutes of Health. In that role, she was at the forefront in developing the two-shot Moderna vaccine, which was shown to be more than 94% effective in combating COVID-19.

While a high school sophomore, Corbett was chosen to take part in Project Seed, a program for gifted minority students, allowing her to study chemistry in labs at the University of North Carolina. She accepted a scholarship for minority science students to the University of Maryland Baltimore County and there she was first introduced to the NIH. Now just 34 years of age, she holds a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In 2014, Corbett joined the NIH’s Vaccine Research Centre as a postdoctoral fellow. In that position she was assigned to a team led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was widely considered as America’s leading expert on infectious diseases.

Overcoming hesitancy in the black community to receiving the anti-virus vaccination when it is readily available in early 2021 is going to be a leading challenge in efforts to overcome the coronavirus. Fauci believes that Corbett’s role in developing the vaccine should help:

So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman,” said Fauci per Miranda Bryant for The Guardian.

Corbett herself believes that it is particularly important for she as a black scientist to be more visible. She was part of a team of scientists who met with President Donald Trump back in March as the effort was first getting underway, tasked with coming up with a vaccine within a year under the president’s Project Warp Speed.

I felt that 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 and essentially done the dirty work for these large efforts toward a vaccine,” she said per The Guardian.

During those first months of the outbreak and the medical community response, Corbett was outspoken on social media, challenging the lack of diversity in the early coronavirus task force. As statistics began to show the African-American community was being disproportionally killed by the virus she implied that decisions on health care could ultimately cost black lives.

The Department of Health and Human Services “advised her of its social media guidelines” according to Darryl Fears at the Washington Post. As a result, Corbett has largely disappeared from social media, as well as television and news print interviews.

Oliver Brooks, president of the National Medical Association, an organization of black doctors, supports Corbett’s call for more diversity while disagreeing with some of her other public statements and implications.

However, Brooks spoke for all Americans per the WaPo piece when he stated “I don’t care if she told me she doesn’t like my mama. If she finds the vaccine, I’ll buy her lunch. I’d say I don’t like your politics, but I sure like your vaccine.

The work has been long and hard this year: “I slept with the burden of the world on my shoulders in so many ways. And it was very hard to rest in the real way that we think about it‘” said Corbett during an interview with CNN‘s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In the end, the effort and sacrifice appear to all have been worthwhile.

The Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine is now authorized for distribution and use under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). “Moderna will continue to gather additional data and plans to file a Biologics License Application (BLA) with the FDA requesting full licensure in 2021,” the company stated in a December 18, 2020 press release.

An obviously brilliant scientist, “Kizzy”, as she likes to be called, appears to have learned much about being in the public eye the during this year of 2020. “I am true to who I am, but I understand that there is a level of professionalism that is attached to essentially what is my newfound status as a scientific lead of this coronavirus vaccine,” she stated per Lindsay Hoffman and Caroline Kim of NBC News.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the initial phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program be offered to healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities. Governors and jurisdictions will ultimately decide who will receive the vaccines.

Vaccinations formally began on December 14, 2020. More than 4.4 million shots have been given worldwide, with 1.94 million doses here in the United States per Bloomberg as of 10:30 AM on December 28, 2020. The United States has allocated 5.1 million doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine  and six million doses of Moderna’s shot for distribution through this week. Both vaccines require two doses taken several weeks apart. The second doses are being held in reserve until they’re ready to be administered.

Per Bloomberg: “Coronavirus vaccines are coming to market at a record pace, shaving years off the typical development time. That speed has been financed in part by rich countries like the U.S., whose Operation Warp Speed program helped subsidize development and manufacturing of half a dozen novel vaccines.”

The “U.S. expects to be able to vaccinate about 20 million people by the end of December, and then an additional 20-25 million people in January” per Chas Danner and Matt Stieb in New York Magazine. The first few months of 2021 will see Americans determined to be in high-risk categories vaccinated first.

Members of the general public who are not in high-risk groups will probably be able to start getting access to COVID-19 vaccines beginning in the early spring,” wrote Danner and Stieb. “And experts seem optimistic that, if everything goes according to plan, most Americans will be able to be vaccinated by June.

There are many individuals who have been working hard on various versions of a COVID-19 vaccine at companies around the world. It will take the combined efforts of the most effective of those to finally put an end to the pandemic, which might take the entirety of next year to end on a global basis.

None worked harder to overcome the pandemic than Kizzmekia Corbett. And none is more appropriate to recognize when considering the importance of her example as a black female in America. Corbett’s scientific work is both legitimate and exceptional. Thanks to her and those she both worked with and represents, millions of lives will ultimately be saved the world over.

With her selection, Corbett becomes the first African-American to be selected as this site’s American of the Year. She also becomes the third woman in the last five years chosen as the honoree.

PREVIOUS AMERICANS OF THE YEAR

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