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Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian biochemist behind the COVID vaccines

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – Hungarian-born Katalin Karikó’s decades of research have helped pave way for Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s successful work behind the mRNA technology used in the two most promising COVID vaccines.

The 65-year-old, who left communist Hungary in 1985 to follow an academic career in the United States with her husband, her 2-year-old daughter and $1,200 hidden inside a teddy bear, has now been suggested as a possible Nobel prize winner.

Karikó, who  joined BioNTech seven years ago and now serves its senior vice-president, spent the last 40 years of her life researching into synthetic messenger RNA, or mRNA, a single-stranded messenger molecule that delivers genetic instructions from DNA to the cell’s protein-making factories.

She started synthesising RNA in Hungary, at the University of Szeged, before receiving an invitation to pursue her research at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

But in the United States, her research was long seen as a dead-end by the rest of the scientific community. As a result, Karikó was often overlooked, repeatedly refused government and corporate grants, and at times, even threatened with deportation, reports the New York Post.

But things changed in 1998, when she met Drew Weissman, a young American scientist who was working on an HIV vaccine at Anthony Fauci’s National Institutes of Health. The two outcast started working together, and in 2005, their research paid off when they discovered how to prevent the inflammatory response in the body to synthetic mRNA, thereby enabling its therapeutical use.

Now, the scientific community believe they couldn’t have won the global vaccine race without her.

Both BioNTech and Moderna have licensed the modified mRNA technology developed by Karikó and Weissman for their COVID vaccines, which have shown efficacy of about 95% in late-stage clinical trials. Unlike other vaccines, which involve injecting dead viral remnants into the body, a vaccine using mRNA sends a set of instructions into cells that teaches them how to fight off a disease.

The adaptability of mRNA has opened a new field of promising therapy in areas ranging from cancer and strokes to malaria and cystic fibrosis, and mRNA vaccine candidates have been developped against flu, herpes and HIV.

“Katalin Karikó deserves the Nobel Prize” even claims Derrick Rossi, Harvard professor and co-founder of the Moderna laboratory, BioNTech’s main competitor in the race for a COVID vaccine.

The head of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared Friday that positive results from COVID vaccine trials mean the world “can begin to dream about the end of the pandemic.”

The European Union has given its green light for Hungary to use the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, but warned it must assume “full responsibility”.

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

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