A nurse prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine in Truro, United Kingdom, Dec. 9, 2020.
A nurse prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine in Truro, United Kingdom, Dec. 9, 2020. (Hugh Hastings/Getty Images via JTA)

Virologist credits Detroit upbringing with skills he used to expedite vaccine.

For almost a year now, Dr. Larry Corey has been working nonstop to design clinical trials for several different COVID-19 vaccines.

Corey — who is based in Seattle but grew up in the Detroit area — is currently serving as head of the operations center for the COVID-19 Prevention Network, a national group of researchers from academic institutions and the private sector tasked with addressing the need for vaccines against COVID-19.

He built his career researching HIV and is the principal investigator of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, an international effort to develop an HIV vaccine based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Dr. Larry Corey
Dr. Larry Corey

Corey has worked closely with Dr. Anthony Fauci on HIV research for more than 20 years. (The two are so close that Corey planned to attend Dr. Fauci’s surprise Zoom birthday party right after his call with the Jewish News this weekend.)

Late last winter, Fauci called him to ask if he would help develop clinical trials to assess the new vaccines that would have to be created to control the virus.

Since then, the world-renowned virologist has Zoomed three times a week with Fauci and taken Operation Warp Speed meetings on the other days. He’s on calls from 5:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. most of the week, then answers emails until late at night.

His days are still long and busy, but he’s been able to relax a bit since the trials got up and running over the summer, he said. “It all happened, and it happened incredibly quickly with incredible, unprecedented speed.”

Corey and his team were able to put together the infrastructure to amass 100 clinical trial sites per vaccine program, and then design each trial.

“It’s been sort of an amazing journey,” he said. “I can sort of smile at it now. I certainly wasn’t that way in April, in May, in June, when you sort of had on anxiety about … could we pull this off?”

So far, the vaccines have actually been much more successful than Corey imagined they’d be — they designed the clinical trials for 50% effectiveness, and 75% would have been great, he said. He never thought they’d get multiple vaccines to 95% effective in less than a year.

“It’s amazing, when you don’t resource-constraint science, what science can do,” he said. “Science has delivered in an unbelievable way. I hope the American people understand that.”

Detroit Roots

Though Corey has lived in Seattle for the last four decades, he still has strong ties to his hometown of Detroit.

He grew up in Oak Park and attended Oak Park High School. The Jewish News was “the most important newspaper that came to my parents’ house,” he said. Corey met his wife at Tamarack while they were staff members and was one of the first campers in the Pioneer program, back when they slept in hammocks strung from trees.

Later, Corey attended University of Michigan for college, medical school and his medical residency.

He became interested in virology by chance, he said, when he was placed at the Centers for Disease Control during the Vietnam War draft. At the CDC, he was assigned to the viral disease division.

“At that time, I was planning to be a cardiologist, coming back to Detroit,” he said. But at the CDC, he began to work on an outbreak of influenza in children, and “I sort of got hooked on viruses,” he told JN.

Corey took his family to Seattle after his time at the CDC so he could continue to work on infectious disease research. Forty years later, he and his family still love the Pacific Northwest, though Corey credits a lot of his formation as a scientist with growing up in Detroit.

“Those years I spent at Camp Tamarack as a counselor and administrator where … I learned actually to manage people and actually administer — a lot of that skill actually built these huge administrative programs that I have set up,” he said, referring to the AIDS clinical trials group, working on an HIV vaccine and now the COVID vaccine trials.

Though the COVID-19 Prevention Network has made incredible progress with the vaccines in such a short amount of time, there’s still lots of work to be done, Corey said. Several vaccines are still in the development and trial stage, plus there’s a global vaccine shortage that needs to be fixed, and many people in the U.S. that are suspicious of the vaccine.

To that last point, Corey says people need to make their own decisions, but that he is extremely confident in the vaccines that have been approved so far.

“If you are at risk of COVID-19, the risk benefit ratios on these vaccines are enormous,” he said. “I have no reservations; we didn’t cut any corners here. They’ve been thoroughly evaluated.”

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