The scientists who made the Covid-19 vaccines possible may be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine even though the pandemic is far from over. Some scientists believe it is only a matter of time: If the work that went into developing the vaccines is not recognized when this year’s award is announced next Monday, October 4, it will win in the next few years.
More than 4.7 million people have died worldwide from Covid-19 since the first cases of the new coronavirus were recorded in 2019, and many countries still live under severe restrictions aimed at curbing its spread.
But vaccines have allowed some rich states to return to near normality, while vaccination rates in poor nations are very low because mass purchases of doses cannot be afforded.
Among the scientists who are considered possible winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine are Katalin Kariko, of Hungarian descent, and American Drew Weissman, for their work on what are known as messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines.
(The mRNA technique) has saved countless thousands of people due to its speed and efficiency
The mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have revolutionized the fight against the virus. They are quick to produce and very efficient. “This technique will win the prize sooner or later, of that I am sure,” predicts Professor Ali Mirazami in the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “The question is when,” he adds.
Traditional vaccines, which introduce a weakened or killed virus to boost the body’s immune system, can take a decade or more to develop. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine went from genetic sequencing to the first human injection in 63 days.
The mRNA carries messages from the body’s DNA to your cells, instructing them to produce the proteins necessary for critical functions, such as coordinating biological processes, including digestion or fighting disease.
The new vaccines use laboratory-made mRNA to instruct cells to produce the coronavirus spike proteins, which stimulate the immune system to act without replicating like the real virus.
Decades of work
MRNA was discovered in 1961, but it took scientists decades to cure the mRNA technique of problems such as instability and the cause of inflammatory diseases.
The developers now hope that it can be used to treat both cancer and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) in the future.
“In addition to the fact that they have been shown to generate a very effective immune response, it is not necessary to adapt production each time a new vaccine is made,” says the associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and scientific director of the vaccine company. Adaptvac, Adam Frederik Sander Bertelsen. “In fact, it has saved countless thousands of people due to its speed and efficiency, so I can stand behind (the award).”
Kariko, 66, laid the groundwork for mRNA vaccines and Weissman, 62, is her longtime collaborator. Kariko, with her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, made a breakthrough by figuring out how to deliver mRNA without the immune system over-revving.
“They are the brain behind the discovery of mRNA,” says Mirazami, while believing that “they may be too young, the (Nobel) committee usually wait until the recipients are over 80 years old.”
The Nobel Prize was founded by the inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel and is awarded for achievements in Medicine, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Physics. This year’s winners are announced October 4-11, beginning with the award for Medicine.
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Is it too early to award the Nobel Prize in Medicine to covid vaccines?