Brow Beat

Wait, What Does Dolly Parton Have to Do With the New Coronavirus Vaccine?

And how is podcaster Jad Abumrad involved?

Dolly Parton leans forward holding a mic with Carrie Underwood standing beside her onstage during a performance at the 2019 CMAs
The face of a woman who is coming for a virus. Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Monday brought some of the most promising news yet in the race to develop an effective vaccine for COVID-19, this time concerning an effort from biotech firm Moderna that showed a surprisingly high 94.5 percent efficacy rate in trials.

But you may have missed one of the development’s most curious details, confined to a footnote in the New England Journal of Medicine’s preliminary report on Moderna’s vaccine. The report listed some of the entities that helped fund the vaccine’s development, and there among the National Institutes of Health and a couple of “major medical schools” or whatever was a very interesting name: Dolly Parton.

Believe it. Parton is far too important to have a résumé, but if she did, she would now be well within her rights to update it. “COVID vaccine fairy godmother” will fit right between “highly decorated musician” and “national treasure.” But how … how did this happen? Well, the Parton connection isn’t actually as random as it sounds, especially if you’ve been paying attention.

Layered inside the fact of Parton’s donation is another fact, which is that Dolly has a surgeon friend: The Guardian reported that “in April, Parton donated [$1 million] to research after her friend Dr Naji Abumrad of the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee told her that they were making ‘some exciting advancements’ in the search for a cure for the virus.” Who is this surgeon who’s so close with Dolly Parton that he can just call her up and ask for a million dollars?

Well, there’s actually a podcast about that. A few years ago, a radio journalist for WNYC noticed that all kinds of people loved Parton and decided he wanted to make a podcast about her. That producer’s name was Jad Abumrad, and—here’s where things get, admittedly, a little random—he lucked out in that his dad, Naji Abumrad, just so happened to be friends with Dolly Parton. The two met at the hospital when the elder Abumrad treated Parton for injuries suffered in a 2014 car crash.

Initially, Jad didn’t get what his father, a Lebanese immigrant, had in common with a country star. The two ended up being more similar than Jad realized, down to the rural mountain homes they both grew up in. The podcast resulting from all of this, Dolly Parton’s America, uses Parton’s friendship with the surgeon as a jumping-off point to show that Dolly’s universally beloved status is really not all that random at all.

So to recap: Dolly’s friendships are so beautiful that they can both spawn hit podcasts and cure COVID (kind of). Admittedly, no one really needed further motivation for wanting to be friends with Dolly Parton, but there you have it.