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Two scientists win Nobel Prize for research that led to COVID-19 vaccines

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two scientists whose research played a crucial role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has more.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Katalin Kariko is a biochemist who was born in Hungary. Drew Weissman is an American immunologist. They met at a copy machine at the University of Pennsylvania and ended up collaborating for more than two decades to produce research that eventually led to the development of the two most important COVID-19 vaccines. Thomas Perlmann from the Nobel Assembly announced the prize at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

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THOMAS PERLMANN: Their discoveries enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.

STEIN: mRNA is a type of genetic information. The pair figured out how to modify mRNA so it could be used to stimulate the immune system to fight off invaders, like viruses. It was considered a fringe idea at the time, but Kariko and Weissman published what turned out to be seminal research in 2005 explaining how to do this. When the pandemic erupted, the drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna used the mRNA technique they developed to produce the COVID vaccines in record time. Here's Rickard Sandberg, a Nobel Committee member, at today's announcement.

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RICKARD SANDBERG: mRNA vaccines, together with other COVID-19 vaccines, have been administered over 13 billion times. Together, they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe COVID-19, reduced the overall disease burden and enabled societies to open up again.

STEIN: The Nobel Committee members said they hope the award might help overcome some of the hesitancy that has plagued efforts to get more people to get vaccinated against COVID and save even more lives. As for the scientists, they're both thrilled. Weissman is now 64. Kariko, who's known as Kati, is now 68. Here's Weissman at a briefing today in Philadelphia.

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DREW WEISSMAN: We couldn't get funding. We couldn't get publications. We couldn't get people to notice RNA as something interesting. And pretty much everybody gave up on it. But Kati lit the match, and we spent the rest of our 20-plus years working together figuring out how to get it to work.

STEIN: Kariko had to overcome big challenges. For years, she went from one low-paying research job to another, and even slept in her office. She says she was forced to retire from Penn and then commuted to work at BioNTech. But she said she never gave up, and her mother never gave up hope she'd eventually win a Nobel, she told NPR in a 2020 interview.

KATALIN KARIKO: My mom, who passed away two years ago at age 89 - every fall, she was listening. And she said to me that, you know, you might get this year. I told - Mom, I couldn't even get a grant.

STEIN: Kariko is only the 13th woman out of 227 people to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAO SONG, "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.