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These scientists, researchers, policymakers, and more are changing the way we respond to this pandemic and prepare for the next one.
Meet 10 Black American leaders who are shaping local and national COVID-19 response. These scientists, researchers, policymakers, teachers, and more have seen first-hand how the pandemic exacerbates racial disparities in health. In the US, Black Americans have died from COVID-19 at 1.4 times the rate of white people.
Today we’re highlighting these leaders as they work to protect their communities and inform our global response to the pandemic.
Assistant professor, Department of Biology at Stanford University
When COVID-19 began, Barnes was studying HIV as a senior postdoctoral fellow in biology and biological engineering and Hanna Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. So he pivoted to researching vaccines and antibody effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2 variants. Now he studies how viruses such as COVID-19 affect humans, especially how the immune system responds.
“Through our work, we can begin to tell a complete picture of what's happening within our immune response upon infection,” he says in an interview with Caltech. “Now that we know exactly how these antibodies bind and how they function, we can begin to think about ways in which we can combine them and make therapies.”
He’s also been very vocal about vaccine misinformation and considers it his job as a scientist to help people understand the science behind vaccines.
“There's a lot of information incoming even for us, as scientists, to deal with,” he says. “So how can we expect the communities to parse these data themselves and understand them?”
Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)
Brooks-LaSure oversees almost all health care providers in the United States and controls federal health programs covering 145 million Americans. So when she began her tenure early in President Biden’s term as the first Black woman to head the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, she knew there would be challenges. And she knew she wanted to focus on health equity.
"Do we take a different approach to making sure that everyone in our country is covered and that that access is meaningful?" she says in an interview with Johns Hopkins University. “That is what drives me. I’m also focused on how important mental health is, physical health—that we integrate that into our policies moving forward."
And during COVID-19, which has exacerbated health disparities, she’s been vocal about expanding Medicaid, helping pregnant women maintain health coverage, and gathering more data to solve health inequities.
Associate professor of chemistry at American University
As a Black female chemist and science communicator, Burks uses her Twitter accounts (@DrRubidium and @CurlyHairMafia) and other platforms such as GeekGirlCon and documentary films to talk about Black female representation in the STEM field. And during COVID-19, she’s been highlighting the connection between systemic racism discussions and COVID-19 responses in the science field.
“Months in and there is data on how Covid-19 affects academics,” she says in an interview with the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education. “Women academics are being less productive by some measures. Hopefully, people will be empowered to have conversations and come up with responses that don't further penalize those most vulnerable and result in further disparities.”
Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cameron spent most of his career studying how viral enzymes can improve treatments for disease. When he came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to develop antiviral therapeutics and strategies for vaccine development in 2019, he didn’t know his work was about to be more relevant than ever.
Now, he studies how viruses replicate and spread on a single-cell level, which will hopefully help us prepare for the next pandemic. The next time a disease spreads rapidly around the world, we might not need extensive knowledge about the new virus to create a vaccine thanks to Craig’s research.
“Different people have different responses to SARS infection and a lot of that’s probably based in genetic differences between individuals,” Cameron says in an interview with UNC. “The question is: Can we tease that out in the laboratory?”
Assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (PhD), Corbett spent six years at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, where she made history as a member of the team who helped develop the mRNA Moderna vaccine. With her colleagues, she studied how to design part of a virus that attaches to a healthy cell (spike protein) so that the immune system can mount a maximal response.
“We knew where to make the mutations in the spike protein [to stabilize it] and we knew the type of platform we would like to make the vaccine with, which was the mRNA platform with Moderna.” says Kizzmekia in TIME, who named her a 2021 Person of the Year. “So we really had a plan.”
President and CEO of Meharry Medical College and member of President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force
As president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, Hildreth has been vocal about keeping communities safe during COVID-19 and getting everyone vaccinated and boosted. In 2020, he helped the college get federal funding to combat COVID-19 in Black communities and joined Nashville, Tennessee’s coronavirus task force to help advise on COVID-19 policy decisions and communicate the science behind the virus and the vaccines to the community.
And in early 2021, President Biden announced he had named James to the Health Equity Task Force.
“We’ve got to deal with COVID-19 as a health equity or health disparity issue, but the underlying cause of the disparity has to be dealt with,” Hildreth said in the Tennessean. “This will probably not be the last pandemic, but we hope to make it the last pandemic in which there is a disproportionate burden of disease and death for some members of the population versus others.”
Assistant professor of immunobiology and member of the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona
Johnson, an alum of both Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies how bacteria interact with metals during infections to help identify novel therapeutic strategies against bacterial infections. Specifically, he looks at how copper compounds can help disrupt the path of COVID-19.
“A recent study found that COVID-19 does not persist on copper surfaces, as compared to other surfaces, nearly as long (hours vs. days),” he said in a 2020 NPR interview. “There is something to how copper was causing a level of toxicity against the virus and we think we can use those particular properties against the virus in a controlled fashion.”
During the pandemic, he founded the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project, which began in June 2020 to remotely connect underrepresented minority students with microbiology labs during COVID-19 to help provide more research opportunities. A month after starting the project, they had already matched over 140 students with 100 mentors.
Research investigator at the University of Michigan and the cofounder and vice president of the Black Microbiologists Association
After the pandemic began to spread in the United States, Kozik, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan noticed that a lot of Black voices were going unheard, especially in her field.
“We were already seeing that COVID was disproportionately impacting minoritized individuals, but the experts we were hearing from on the news and online were predominantly white and male,” she said in an interview with Shape.com. “We really need to have a similar movement for Black in Microbiology.”
So she started to raise the visibility of Black scientists and highlights their research through an Instagram page (blackinmicro) and Twitter account (BlackInMicro). Then, in September 2020, she helped plan and host a virtual conference for over 3,600 people and the Black Microbiologists Association was solidified.
CNH Long Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, Inaugural Associate Dean for Health Equity Research, and founding director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center
In 2021, Nunez-Smith took the helm of President Biden’s Health Equity Task Force, which advises the White House on how to best support the national response to COVID-19.
“Making sure communities hardest hit by the pandemic have access to safe, effective vaccines remains a priority,” says Nunez-Smith in the New York Times. But “what’s needed to ensure equity in the recovery is not limited to health and health care.”
Nunez-Smith has focused on health equity for most of her career, as a physician-scientist at Yale University and founding member of the Equity Research and Innovation Center there. When COVID-19 began, she also served on the Community Committee for the ReOpen Connecticut Advisory Group and worked on strengthening COVID-19 response in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Pediatric surgeon and founder and CEO of the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity
The first African-American female pediatric surgeon to be trained entirely in the United States, Stanford began her medical career in Pittsburgh and eventually joined Temple University and then Abington Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia, where she established a nonprofit called It Takes Philly, and her business, R.E.A.L Concierge Medicine.
When the pandemic began, she saw the health disparities in Black communities first-hand and established the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (BDCC), which works to reduce incidents of disease and death from COVID-19 among the African American community. BDCC built a mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccine center top provide services to 75,000+ residents in Philadelphia neighborhoods without barriers to care.
“In a public health crisis, you have to go to the people, particularly the most vulnerable,” she says to MSNBC. “That is alleviating many of the barriers.”
Because of this work, she was named one of Fortune Magazine's 50 Greatest Leaders and a Top 10 Hero by CNN. Now, she runs the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity, the health center born from BDCC.
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