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Nobel Prize in medicine awarded to scientists whose research enabled mRNA COVID-19 vaccines

The researchers "fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system," the Nobel Prize panel said. 

Published: October 2, 2023 9:14am

Two scientists whose discoveries enabled the creation of the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines won the 2023 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday. 

The panel that awarded the cherished scientific prize in Stockholm said that the "groundbreaking findings" of Hungarian-American Katalin Kariko and American Drew Weissman "contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times."

The researchers, who both work at the University of Pennsylvania, "fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system," the panel said. 

They began their research together in the 1990s by focusing on how messenger RNA, which is used in protein synthesis in cells, interacts with the immune system. 

Kariko was senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, which partnered with Pfizer to produce one of the two major mRNA coronavirus vaccines in the United States.

Dr. Paul Hunter, a medicine professor at the U.K.-based University of East Anglia, said that the use of mRNA vaccines greatly decreased the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Associated Press.

"If it hadn’t been for the mRNA technology, COVID would have been much worse," Hunter said. "Vaccines generally were the turning point in slowing down COVID and the mRNA vaccines were just so much better than all the others."

He also said: "We would likely only now be coming out of the depths of COVID without the mRNA vaccines."

Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID vaccine as well as the mRNA vaccine produced by Moderna have become the most popular coronavirus vaccines in the U.S., with more than 650 million doses of both vaccines having been administered across the country, according to official government data. The award comes as critics have highlighted concerns about the efficacy and safety of mRNA COVID vaccines. 

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