Olubukola Abiona, Geoffrey Hutchinson, and Cynthia Ziwawo worked in Dr. Barney Graham’s lab at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and were an essential part of the global effort to control the pandemic.
The three recently reunited at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta while they were attending the inaugural Dr. David Satcher Global Health Equity Summit, although they hadn’t known each other before working together in the lab.
Sharing how their journey began, 33-year-old Hutchinson said, “We were sitting in that meeting, and Dr. Graham said, ‘It’s time to start thinking about running the drill.’”
“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 added.
The “drill” involved Abiona and Hutchinson making lab versions of this novel coronavirus protein. Like other coronaviruses, the scientists understood this one carried a structure called a spike protein, which it uses to enter human cells and cause infections.
25-year-old Ziwawo was tasked with testing the antibodies that block the virus during that time. She recalled the moment when they first realized that the vaccine would work.
“We knew we were doing things that were important, but then it was like ‘Oh, wow, this is really big,’” Ziwawo told CNN. “And then Fauci is coming to the lab.”
Not long after the official drill was launched, Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the world that the NIH was working on a vaccine against the coronavirus, as part of an existing partnership with the biotechnology company Moderna.
Morehouse School of Medicine’s CEO and president, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, disclosed that it was part of Graham’s plan to bring in people of diverse backgrounds to the lab. He was deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory then.
“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. They’re going to ask questions from a different lens because of the differences they’ve experienced throughout life,” Rice told CNN.
Graham, who is now a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine and the inaugural director of the school’s newly announced David Satcher Global Health Equity Institute, commended the students and Corbett for their work.
“The work that these four people did in particular, I think, has been underappreciated and somewhat heroic, in my opinion,” he remarked.
He added, “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.”
The National Medical Association reported that only 5.7% of physicians in the U.S. are Black. Abiona, Ziwawo, and Hutchinson, who are all Black, come from different cultural backgrounds and have various experiences. While Abiona has Nigerian roots, Ziwawo comes from a Malawian family, and Hutchinson studied infectious diseases in Mozambique.
Their hard work is still evident as the United States begins to roll out updated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines.
Ziwawo is currently in her fourth year at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Her colleague, 27-year-old Abiona, is a third-year dual-degree medical and Ph.D. student at the Case Western Reserve University; and Hutchinson is in his fourth year as a doctoral student at the University of Washington.
The three students have been interested in science since their younger days. While Ziwawo knew she wanted to be a doctor at age 5, Abiona discovered her passion in high school after joining a science and technology program. Hutchinson, who has also loved science for a long time, served in the Peace Corps and taught chemistry.