Bette Korber turns her attention to COVID-19 fight

Published May 7, 2020

Biologist Bette Korber, a Cal State Long Beach graduate, is among a team of scientists who have discovered a possible new stronger strain of COVID-19, one that might by more contagious than the versions doctors have been fighting.  

The CSULB Distinguished Alumna is at the forefront of a preliminary study done at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that examined a global database of the virus with the intent of developing a vaccine. The research was featured this week in the Los Angeles Times

The news means the pandemic could present new challenges in the fight to curb the disease and raises the possibility that people could be more susceptible to reinfection. The team’s work hasn’t been peer reviewed, and some scientists are questioning the findings. 

“This is hard news, but please don’t only be disheartened by it,” Korber said in a post on her Facebook page. 

Being ahead of the curve on research isn’t anything new for Korber, a computational biologist who earned her B.S. in chemistry in 1981 from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the same university where her late father was a sociology professor and mother a nursing student. Her older sister also received her B.A. in journalism from CSULB. 

Following graduation, Korber went on to earn a Ph.D. at Caltech and did her postdoctoral work on the HIV/AIDS virus at Harvard School of Public Health. Before turning her attention to coronavirus, she focused her research on finding an effective HIV vaccine. 

Korber’s interest in HIV research stemmed from a close friend who was diagnosed with the disease while she was at Caltech. “I hate HIV… I lost a couple of friends to it. HIV kills in horrible ways. I think of what the epidemic has done to Africa and it motivates me,” she is quoted as saying in IAIVReport, a publication on AIDS vaccine research. 

She is credited with discovering that HIV has existed since the 1930s, longer than previously thought; she soon became team leader for an international AIDS database at Los Alamos that features more than 840,000 sequences of the HIV viruses from around the world. Her work in HIV/AIDS research earned her the title of Elizabeth Glaser Scientist in 1997. 

Kober has since designed a novel mosaic HIV vaccine that may slow or prevent HIV infection and protect the vaccinated person against the many HIV variants. She named 2018 R&D Scientist of the Year for her work.