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Pandemic Award Season Begins

The Nobel Prize goes to those whose research affirmed global policy priorities.

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Credit: Kathy Hutchins

This week I learned that the creators of the mRNA technology behind the Covid-19 vaccine had not already won a Nobel Prize. Two different vaccine scientists had been nominated for a Nobel in 2022, and Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, the scientists who won the 2023 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, had been granted a number of other prestigious awards since 2020. But it was not until Monday that they received the top scientific honor in the world. 

Effectively, the Nobel committee has declared that the mRNA vaccines and their novel transmission mechanism were indeed the cure-all for the coronavirus, because vaccines were given and now the pandemic is in the rear view.

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Anthony Fauci, the former director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in whose lab Weissman was a fellow, praised the decision. 

“This is a wonderful choice of Nobel Prize,” Fauci told Science.org. “[It’s] the classic example of a years and years-long collaboration on a very, very difficult problem…They doggedly kept at it and made a discovery that has already transformed many areas of biomedical research.” 

One almost wonders at Weissman and Kariko not receiving a Nobel earlier, given the praise lavished on every scientist whose work supported the policy decisions of the U.S. government and the World Health Organization in 2020 and 2021. The Johns Hopkins scientist who created the Covid-19 tracker dashboard in early 2020 won the highest science award in the U.S. the following year. In 2022, the Royal Society in London awarded a medal to the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines. 

Meanwhile, the Nobel-winning study of base-modified mRNA was 15 years old at the start of the pandemic. A retroactive award is not, in itself, terribly unique. Although Alfred Nobel established his prize to be granted to discoveries within the previous calendar year, this stipulation has long been disregarded under the understanding that many of the most impactful works in science and literature are often only discernible with several years’ hindsight. Indeed, the current average time gap between a discovery and its recognition by the Nobel committee has grown to 30 years, and is expected to continue in this trend. 

Certainly, Kariko and Weissman’s discovery was not nearly as interesting in 2005 as it is on this side of the pandemic. Yet, by any measure of scientific research, to award the highest prize in science in view of contributions to a new technology just two years after the first global-scale human testing of it seems premature. 

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Prior to 2005, attempts to use mRNA to transmit a therapy had failed, triggering an inflammatory immune response in test subjects which made them sick and weakened the mRNA. By modifying the mRNA to escape notice by the immune system, however, Kariko and Weissman believed they could dramatically change the world of vaccine therapy. 

The majority of scientific journals were disinterested in their study in 2005. Biotech companies, including Moderna, on the other hand, quickly sought to capitalize on this potential new technology. Even so, it was not until the coronavirus pandemic that any attempted vaccine using the base-modified mRNA even made it out of clinical trials; other attempted flu shots had all failed.

Kariko is now a senior vice president at BioNTech, the German drug manufacturer which joined with Pfizer to create the vaccine that would collect sizable State Department contracts. Weissman, meanwhile, continues to be celebrated for his resolute desire to create a vaccine to treat HIV/AIDS. 

Whatever the worthiness of their research, however, this year’s award is most significant for its affirmation of elite priorities. It is a declaration of victory, at perhaps the highest level of global prestige, on behalf of “the science” and against what the Nobel nominee frequently refers to as the “Antiscience.” The whitewashed story of the coronavirus, with its foregone conclusion that a vaccine—this mRNA Covid-19 vaccine—would be the silver bullet, has been enshrined in the global hall of fame. 

Those who questioned such studies, those who examined data points beyond the number of Covid-19 infections, and those who tested alternate hypotheses will not be so awarded. The Great Barrington Declaration authors, Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff, will not receive a Nobel Prize for recommending a more focused pandemic response than universal stay-at-home orders, endless masking, and vaccine passports. Nor will there be scholarships named for Scott Atlas, the health policy expert and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, who in the earliest days of the pandemic had a clear enough head to recognize a simple solution in the form of herd immunity. Will there be medals given to the lawyers who sounded the alarm on a frighteningly high incidence of adverse reactions in U.S. military members who took the Covid-19 vaccine? Certainly, the handful of military men and women who were booted over their noncompliance with the government’s mandatory vaccine policy will not be granted honorary degrees for their sacrifice. 

There is no place of honor, for these and others, while the winners who write history are also the ones who name themselves the winners.