Barney Graham '75 named a Time Hero of the Year for developing COVID-19 vaccine

Barney Graham '75

Rice alumnus Barney Graham '75, a renowned virologist and deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been named a 2021 Hero of the Year by Time magazine for his work developing Moderna’s groundbreaking COVID-19 vaccine.

Barney Graham '75
Barney Graham '75 was honored for his work developing the groundbreaking COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo courtesy of Barney Graham)

Gracing one of four covers of Time’s December issue along with three fellow COVID-19 vaccine researchers, including his NIH colleague Kizzmekia Corbett, Graham was recognized for his years of work on “structure-based” vaccine design. That work set the stage for the rapid development of the Moderna-NIH vaccine and many of the other successful COVID-19 vaccines that have now saved countless lives around the globe.

“Most scientists never get to see their product actually used,” Graham told Time. “To watch the evening news and see the relief from health care providers who were getting immunized, to see people in the clinic at NIH being vaccinated and being so relieved and so grateful — those were special moments.”

Time Heroes of the Year 2021 Cover
Graham and his fellow Heroes were honored on a cover of Time's latest issue. (Courtesy of Time, photos by Mattia Balsamini)

A native of rural Paola, Kansas, Graham graduated from Rice with a bachelor's degree in biology. He later earned his M.D. at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Vanderbilt University. Graham was then recruited by Anthony Fauci to develop the Vaccine Research Center within the NIH in 2000.

Noted vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, the dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine and a fellow in disease and poverty at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy, called Graham “(a) pioneer in viral immunology and vaccine development.” Hotez’s comments came in a Rice Magazine story detailing the contributions Graham and fellow alumnus Bill Gruber '75 of Pfizer made toward ending the coronavirus pandemic.

Graham’s strategy — developing a vaccine that could take aim at the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19 before it attaches to healthy cells — was one of two key developments that led to the fastest development of a mass-produced vaccine in history. The other was the mRNA vaccine platform pioneered by Graham’s fellow Time Heroes Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman.

According to Time, Graham was surrounded by family, including his grandchildren, when he received the news in November 2020 that a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine created due in large part to his decades of research would soon be made available to the public.

“We pretty much had a group hug and then I went back to work,” Graham told Time. “After those 10 months of working all the time … and trying to get to an end point, just the relief to know that we had something that might make a difference was the thing that was most meaningful to me.”