From left, Olu Abiona, Geoffrey Hutchinson and Cynthia Ziwawo pose at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta on September 13, 2023.
CNN  — 

It was a meeting that changed their lives forever.

The year was 2020, and reports had emerged from China that a never-before-seen coronavirus was spreading quickly, sickening hundreds of people and turning deadly.

More than 7,000 miles away in Bethesda, Maryland, tensions were high in Dr. Barney Graham’s lab at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health. He convened a meeting of the lab’s scientists who were developing vaccines for other types of respiratory viruses.

Among about two dozen scientists in Graham’s lab were three young students: Olubukola Abiona, Geoffrey Hutchinson and Cynthia Ziwawo.

“We were sitting in that meeting, and Dr. Graham said, ‘It’s time to start thinking about running the drill,’ ” said Hutchinson, now 33 and a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Washington.

“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,” he said.

Geoffrey Hutchinson working in the NIH lab on coronavirus vaccine research.

The “drill” consisted of Abiona and Hutchinson making lab versions of this novel coronavirus’ protein. As with other types of coronaviruses, the scientists knew that this one carried a structure called a spike protein, which it uses to enter human cells and cause infections. Next, the protein went to Ziwawo, who tested the kind of immune responses a vaccine would elicit in response to it.

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

Shortly after the official drill was launched, Dr. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced to the world that the NIH was working on a vaccine against the coronavirus, part of an existing collaboration with the biotechnology company Moderna.

What the world didn’t know at the time was that those three students — Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo — were doing the foundational work for those vaccines to eventually save lives.

‘It was just all hands on deck’

At the lab, Abiona, Hutchinson and Ziwawo worked under renowned immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, then an NIH senior research fellow who guided them through their experiments and testing. The students hadn’t known each other before working together in the lab.