A life-long learner, and a highly respected and dedicated public servant barely begin to describe Warrenton native, Dr. Pennie Hylton. Dr. Hylton, daughter of Henderson J. Cheek and Annie B. Cheek, was a 1972 graduate of John Graham High School and 1976 biology graduate of North Carolina Central University. With a solid career in microbiology laboratory research, biotechnology, and quality assurance that spans 40 years, Dr. Hylton is currently one of the foremost innovative leaders serving in a public health capacity at the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Currently, Dr. Hylton is quality branch chief, of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. BARDA is a part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and was established in 2006 to secure the public (every one of us) from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, pandemic and emerging infections.
Her primary role is to audit all government contracts that manufacture therapeutics and vaccines and to inspect and accept them for storage and distribution to United States populations. Hylton describes BARDA as an organization that saves lives through medical countermeasures; it is a government organization which works with private companies such as GSK (Glaxo Smith Kline), Moderna, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Regeneron, Merck, Sanofi and others. Simply put, it is the taxpayers’ dollars that pay for the work of BARDA. BARDA has outperformed by bringing to marketplace over 55 medical countermeasures since its establishment.
After moving to Maryland, Dr. Hylton earned two master’s degrees from the University of Maryland and went on to earn a Ph.D. in business from Capella University. In addition to her career, she is a proud mother of two adult sons, Rafael Jr. and Andre; and she had two daughters-in-law, Naima and Alecia; and four grandchildren, Darryn, Daniel, Alana and Ahlia.
Beyond her stellar resume and many accolades, one of Hylton’s greatest concerns is the general health and safety of people. I’ve known her for many years as a friend of her family; however, during our discussion about the devastating effects of the Coronavirus, (COVID-19) and the promising newly developed vaccines, her genius, passion for people and love of her career unfolded as well.
Jones: Tell me about your career: how did you get started?
Dr. Hylton: It began in 1976; after graduating from NCCU, I went to Maryland seeking work for the summer; the plan was to return to North Carolina after the summer because Wake County School System had recruited me to teach biology, and while in college, I had become a certified teacher, so I was ready.
However, my aunt knew someone who worked in a lab; I applied for a job just for the summer, I was hired; the director of the lab liked my laboratory and writing skills, and when she found out that I had two years of microbiology experience, since I worked in labs at Research Triangle during my last two years of college; “I had great mentors from college years; I learned how to identify bacteria; I could just look at it or smell it and knew exactly what kind of bacteria it was. I could also, as we say in the field, grow it up and plate it out.” They offered me a full-time job; the pay was really good and I loved what I was doing, so I did not return to North Carolina to teach.
I went into QA, Quality Assurance Compliance, worked in private industry for a while, started my family, and based on a history of prior work with him, I was recruited by Dr. Rick Bright, former director of BARDA and recently selected member of President-Elect Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board.
So, let me tell you a little more about BARDA. Do you remember some years ago, there were two postal workers exposed to anthrax powders and they died? BARDA puts medical countermeasures in place to prevent and to save lives; we made sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines in place to help if something like that is experienced again. Therapeutics are treatments used if you have diseases while vaccines are used to prevent disease. BARDA, also being part of ASPR, also has drills to practice what to do in an emergency within large crowds.
Jones: COVID has changed our lives tremendously, and now that the vaccines have been authorized for use, what can you tell the general population about preventing Coronavirus?
Dr. Hylton: The virus is constantly looking for a host to grow and survive. So, the virus infects one person and that one person can infect many through spread of droplets, contact and in the air. You can’t see it with your naked eyes or know if someone has COVID-19 because most people are asymptomatic, and you don’t know if they are carrying the virus. We can take the virus down by following the 3Ws: Wear a mask, Wash your hands and Watch your distance. The closer I stand to someone, if I have Coronavirus, I can give it to another host. If we practice these 3Ws the virus has nowhere else to go, and levels come down so low we can eventually develop herd immunity because the virus can’t transmit any more. Let’s use Polio for example: in the United States, Polio has almost been eliminated because of the vaccine for Polio, we have not had any cases reported in a very long time.
Jones: Why is hand washing so important? And what are your thoughts on hand sanitizer?
Dr. Hylton: This is a respiratory virus surrounded by a lipid bilayer; if you have the virus on your hands, the more you wash hands, you are washing the virus off, keeping it from getting in your eyes, nose and throat. The Coronavirus has lipids, (fats) surrounding it. Lipids are like oils on your hands. Imagine what it’s like trying to wash oil off of your hands. It’s hard to come off, right? So, the more you wash hands with soap and water, the better chance of getting rid of the virus if on hands. Hand sanitizer is good when you don’t have access to washing hands.
According to Hylton, currently, there are two effective responses available for COVID-19; there is the Monoclonal Antibody Therapy which helps with a patient’s survival rate. According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful antigens such as viruses. This treatment has been administered to President Donald Trump and Ben Carson, U.S. Department of Housing, (HUD) secretary, among others.
The second means of response is the COVID-19 vaccine authorized for use in the United States by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, and the AstraZeneca vaccine recently authorized for use in the United Kingdom.
Jones: There are quite a few people in my circle, on social media and in the news who are hesitant or afraid to get the Coronavirus vaccine; do you think the vaccine should be mandatory?
Dr. Hylton: I think it should be mandatory; however, the United States, the federal government can only make a few things mandatory. It can be made mandatory based on the work one does; but other than that, it will be made available to everyone who wants it. And there is a list, at cdc.gov noting who the vaccine will be available to first.
Jones: Why do you think some people, especially some of the African American community, are hesitant or afraid to take the vaccine?
Dr. Hylton: They are reluctant because the vaccine was developed in such a short time; they think something was just thrown together in 10 months. That was not the case. The technology used to create the COVID-19 vaccine has been researched and developed in the laboratory for approximately 10 years. The technology is being used for other vaccine candidates for ZIKA, SARS-CoV-1, MERS, personalized medicine and cancer. The COVID-19 vaccine was the first authorized because of the need. The vaccine is safe and effective. I can assure you of this because every lot that is accepted by government is done through my team, and it is my obligation to you that every vaccine lot has met all the standards established by the FDA. The government took a risk of manufacturing at the same time clinical trials were being conducted to get the vaccine out faster to save lives. Normally, they would have waited to manufacture after trials are completed. The government operation, Operation Warp Speed, took the risk and vaccine worked with over 30,000 individuals in the clinical trials with very few adverse reactions and no deaths.
Jones: What are some final words you would like to leave our readers?
Dr. Hylton: I tell everybody there are many benefits; get the vaccine to protect yourself, your family, and your community. Think about it this way, three million plus people have taken the vaccine, and no one has died, and there have been minimal adverse reactions to it. There have been many COVID-19 deaths. Listen to your physician.