Stories of Service: Meet the biologist helping his agency’s response to COVID-19

By Parker Schaffel | June 18, 2020

Corey Hoffman was eager to start his next adventure in the nuclear countermeasures branch at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

A few days before his March 1 start date, Hoffman received a call from someone at BARDA, who told him he was not going to work on the nuclear team as he had thought. Instead, he would directly support the director and senior leaders in organizing his agency’s response to COVID-19.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Hoffman was ready to take on this new role. He started by meeting with everyone he could, building connections and learning more each day.

“We had so many questions to answer,” Hoffman said. “Where would our focus be? Who should we engage? What existing development efforts and agreements could be leveraged? Who were our partners?”

Getting answers to these questions helps BARDA with its mission of saving lives and protecting Americans from 21st century health security threats and to fund contracts with private companies to develop new technologies. But it wasn’t easy. “Every day felt like climbing a hill,” Hoffman said.

The agency’s COVID-19 focus was on three things: diagnostics to identify people who have active infections or the antibodies for the virus; therapeutics to enable them to recover; and a vaccine to prevent infection and turn the tide of the pandemic.

In March, the United States had not yet experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections, but Hoffman knew the problem would get much worse. He worked to integrate his agency’s efforts and ensure senior leaders had the information they needed to make the best decisions.

There was an immediate increase in efficiency among the program teams at BARDA. “Through our work and coordination, everyone could see what everyone else was working on and how their programs fit together.” That was essential for keeping track of ongoing activities with the 40 companies that were developing diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and new technologies to combat COVID-19, he said.

Some companies are working on detecting genetic material and how the virus affects it. Others are looking at the effect of the virus on people. Still others are researching new therapies.

“What gives me hope is the diversity of everything that is happening,” Hoffman said. “That’s incredibly important in helping us determine the answer to COVID-19.”   

Many different organizations and agencies are working together to develop a “holistic solution” to the pandemic, he said. “And it’s not just the ones you would think of. It’s organizations like the FDA and DOD that are joining the pandemic response. Every day it gets better, and we’re eliminating duplicative effort working toward the common goal of eradicating COVID-19.”

We want to share more encouraging stories like this one. If you know of federal employees who are helping ease the effects of, or working to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, please email us. For more of our Stories of Service blog series, check out the story of the trio of VA doctors fighting COVID-19 through telehealth medicine and the story of NASA employees partnering with local communities to help COVID-19 patients.

Corey Hoffman, Ph.D. in Pharmacology, is a biologist at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in the Department of Health and Human Services. He earned his doctorate and master’s degrees in pharmacology from the University of Rochester and his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the State University of New York at Geneseo. Learn more about BARDA’s work and its mission.


Parker Schaffel