12-03-2023  8:39 am   •   PDX and SEA Weather
by BOTWC Staff
Published: 26 September 2023

When reports of a new coronavirus strain that emerged in China hit airwaves in early 2020, no one could’ve guessed how it would dramatically change the world as we know it. Spreading rapidly and causing massive deaths globally, who knew that a small group of lab students in Bethesda, Maryland would be the key to solving this COVID-19 crisis. 

It was in Dr. Barney Graham’s lab at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health that the cure to COVID-19 would first emerge, reports CNN. Dr. Graham called a meeting of lab scientists who were already developing vaccines for other respiratory viruses, saying that this emerging coronavirus presented the perfect opportunity for a drill. 

“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,” explained Geoffrey Hutchinson, one of two dozen scientists in the lab that day. 

Hutchinson then joined a small team alongside Olubukola Abiona and Cynthia Ziwawo who began concocting lab versions of the coronavirus’ protein. Abiona and Hutchinson would make the protein while Ziwao would test the immune response to the vaccine. As time went on, they began to realize that the work they were doing was anything but a drill.

“We knew we were doing things that were important, but then it was like ‘Oh, wow, this is really big.’ And then Fauci is coming to the lab,” explained Ziwawo. 

All hands on deck

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases became a figurehead in the fight against COVID-19. He was also a regular at the NIH labs where Abiona, Hutchinson, and Ziwawo were hard at work doing the foundational work to develop a vaccine. The three students then began working under world renowned immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who at the time was a NIH senior research fellow. It was Corbett who helped guide them through experiments and testing, none of the students knowing each other before this event. 

“At that point, it was just all hands on deck, and we were ready to go,” said Corbett. 

Before they knew it, the first round of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were in the testing phase and the team felt confident about what they had developed. Corbett previously called the 66-day turnaround for the vaccine “a testament to rapid vaccine development for emerging diseases.” 

Diversifying the lab

Recently the group reunited since those days spent developing the COVID-19 vaccine, reflecting on the emotions surrounding it and how grateful they were for each other. Dr. Graham also chimed in, calling the four heroes. 

“The work that these four people did in particular, I think, has been underappreciated and somewhat heroic, in my opinion… 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,” said Graham. 

Now a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine and inaugural director of the school’s newly developed David Satcher Global Health Equity Institute, Graham uses the example of the COVID-19 vaccine team as a reason to bolster diversity in scientists at the lab. 

While the three have gone on to do great work in their careers, both Ziwawo and Abiona currently pursuing medical degrees, they realize that the work has paved the way for the success of the vaccines today. In reflecting on that first day cheering as the tests marked an immune response, they realize that the fruits of their labor are still ongoing, each of them ready for a booster as Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech continue to roll out updated COVID-19 vaccines. 

This article was originally published to BOTWC

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