Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman win Nobel Prize for COVID vaccine

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to a pair of scientists who developed the technology that led to the mRNA COVID vaccines. Among them is a Hungarian woman who continued her research despite opposition.

By Stefan J. Bos

It has been a long road for Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Karikó and U.S. colleague Drew Weissman. They first met waiting in line for a photocopier and then made mRNA molecule discoveries that paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines.

On Monday, the Swedish award-giving body made a stunning announcement saying to award the pair, who had been tipped as favourites, “with the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19."

The announcement was made by Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who also said both scientists were "overwhelmed" by news of the prize when he contacted them.

Karikó, a 68-year-old professor at Szeged University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine.

She was a senior vice president at BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Her colleagues in Hungary praised what they called “her amazing perseverance” during decades of often lonely research that they said made the prize possible.

They recall that after doing biological research in the Hungarian town of Szeged she moved to the United States in the hope of extending her scientific work. But after several years support for her research was terminated prompting her to look for other ways to continue.

In 1998, she found her scientific partner in Weissman. Now 64, Weismann is of the University of Pennsylvania, and professor and director of the Penn Institute for RNAInnovations.

Yet critics say the mRNA vaccines they helped to develop were initially mainly used in North America and across Europe to shut down COVID-19.

Only a small number of the shots were made available to poorer countries months after vaccination started in rich nations.

Other critics have also cited reported side effects of the vaccines, but the World Health Organization has fully backed rolling out the mRNA shots worldwide.

The prize the scientists share carries a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor or $1 million— from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.

They will receive their awards at ceremonies on December 10th, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.