Hungarian and US scientists win medicine Nobel for Covid-19 vaccine discoveries

Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman win the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden on October 2, 2023. Picture: News Agency via REUTERS

Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman win the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden on October 2, 2023. Picture: News Agency via REUTERS

Published Oct 2, 2023


By Niklas Pollard and Ludwig Burger

STOCKHOLM: Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and US colleague Drew Weissman, who met in line for a photocopier before making mRNA molecule discoveries together that paved the way for Covid-19 vaccines, won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday.

“The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the Swedish award-giving body said in the latest accolade for the pair.

The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, was selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute medical university and comes with 11 million Swedish crowns (about R19m) to share between them.

Kariko was senior vice-president and head of RNA protein replacement at BioNTech until 2022 and has since acted as an adviser to the company. She is also a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Weissman is professor in vaccine research at the Perelman School.

Katalin Karikó (HUN/USA) and Drew Weissman (USA) have been awarded the Nobel Prize for their discoveries that enabled the development of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19. Graphic: Graphic News

The two laureates jointly developed so-called nucleoside base modifications, which stop the immune system from launching an inflammatory attack against lab-made mRNA, previously seen as a major hurdle against any therapeutic use of the technology.

German biotech firm BioNTech said in June that about 1.5 billion people had received its mRNA shot, co-developed with major drugmaker Pfizer, across the world.

The European Medicines Agency earlier this year cited estimates that in the first year of the pandemic alone, coronavirus vaccines were estimated to have helped save almost 20 million lives globally. BioNTech and Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines were the most widely-used Covid shots used in the Western world.

The Nobel winners showed in 2005 that adjustments to nucleosides, the molecular letters that write the mRNA’s genetic code, can keep the mRNA under the immune system’s radar.


“This year's Nobel Prize recognises their basic science discovery that fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system and had a major impact on society during the recent pandemic,” said Rickard Sandberg, member of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute.

“Together they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe Covid-19, reduced the overall disease burden and enabled societies to open up again.”

Messenger or mRNA, discovered in 1961, is a natural molecule that serves as a recipe for the body’s production of proteins. To use man-made mRNA to instruct human cells to make therapeutic proteins, long regarded as impossible, was commercially pioneered during the pandemic.

The technology means a radical break from established biotech medicines, which are generated in complex reactors by genetically modified living cells, then isolated and purified.

Messenger RNA, by contrast, works like a software that can be injected into the body to instruct human cells to churn out the desired proteins.

Prospective uses include drugs against cancer and vaccines against malaria, flu and rabies.

The medicine prize kicks off this year's awards with the remaining five to be unveiled in the coming days.

The prizes, first handed out in 1901, were created by Swedish dynamite inventor and wealthy businessman Alfred Nobel, and are awarded for achievements in science, literature and peace, and in later years also for economics.

The Swedish king will present the prizes at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death, followed by a lavish banquet at city hall.

Last year’s medicine prize went to Swede Svante Paabo for sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans, and for discovering a previously unknown human relative, the Denisovans.

Other past winners include Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for the discovery of penicillin, and Karl Landsteiner in 1930 for his discovery of human blood groups.

Here are some past winners – and one person who did not but should have.


The leader of the US civil rights movement was “the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence”, according to the then chairperson of the award body, Gunnar Jahn.

“He is the first to make the message of brotherly love a reality in the course of his struggle, and he has brought this message to all men, to all nations and races.”

At 35, he was also the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate at the time. Today the youngest winner is Pakistan’s education campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she won in 2014.


The Nobel Peace Prize has been controversial on many occasions but most agreed in 1993 that Mandela winning the award was “self-evident”, according to Geir Lundestad, the then secretary of the Norwegian Nobel committee.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison and still called for a peaceful transition to end apartheid in South Africa.

What was not self-evident was awarding the prize jointly with Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last white leader of South Africa, Lundestad said in his 2015 memoir.

Many said Mandela should have won alone, while others said Mandela could not make peace without a counterpart, recounted Lundestad. In the end, the prize was given to both to encourage the peaceful transition to a democratic South Africa, which was not completed by the time of the award.


Among the most controversial awards is the 1973 one to top US diplomat Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for reaching the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords under which Washington completed a military withdrawal from South Vietnam.

The Nobel committee’s decision shocked many at the time as Kissinger played a major role in US military strategy in the final stages of the 1955-75 Vietnam war.

Le Duc Tho refused the prize on the grounds peace had not yet been established. Two of the five committee members resigned in protest.

Kissinger, while accepting the award, did not travel to Norway for the ceremony and later tried in vain to return the prize.

Internal documents released in January of 2023 showed the then committee gave the award in the full knowledge the Vietnam War was unlikely to end any time soon.


One of the few women to win the award, Suu Kyi was one of a string of human rights campaigners in the 1990s to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, for her non-violent struggle for democracy against the military dictatorship in Myanmar.

For years she was hailed as one of the best recipients of the award, but that changed after the Myanmar military carried out mass killings and gang rapes “with genocidal intent”, according to a UN investigation.

Suu Kyi, who led the Myanmar government at the time, has been criticised for failing to speak out against the army crackdown against the Rohingyas.

In 2021, following a new military coup, Suu Kyi was arrested again. The 79-year-old is currently in jail and her health is ailing, according to her son.


He was on the committee’s internal discussion list of candidates on five different occasions, with the body prepared to award him in 1948, the year he was assassinated, according to Lundestad.

The committee could still have given it to him posthumously – it was possible at the time but no longer is – but did not.

According to Lundestad, it may be because the committee did not want to offend close ally Britain, the former colonial power in India, or because the politics of Gandhi may have been perceived as too “foreign” or “anti-modern” by members of a Europe-centric committee.

The violence of India’s partition could also have played a part, he said. At least one million people were killed and 15 million were uprooted.

In any case, “among the omissions, Mahatma Gandhi stands in a class of his own”, writes Lundestad in his memoir.

“It is of course extremely unfortunate that the 20th century’s leading spokesperson for non-violence never received the Nobel Peace Prize."

* Reporting by Niklas Pollard, Johan Ahlander in Stockholm, and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo; editing by Andrew Cawthorne