The Nobel Prize For Medicine : The greatest benefit conferred on humankind. In an ugly world, vaccines are beautiful gifts worth honouring.

THE NOBEL PRIZE for medicine, awarded on October 2nd last year to Katalin Kariko, a biochemist, and Drew Weissman, an immunologist, is a fitting capstone to a great underdog story.

Dr. Kariko's unfashionable insistence on trying to get RNA into cells set back her career. She persisted, and the two developed a technique which allowed the immune system to be primed against threats in an entirely new way.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the MRNA vaccines they had made possible saved millions of lives - and freed billions more to live normally again.

Their prize is unusual. The only previous scientist to have won a Nobel Prize in the context of vaccination was Max Theiler,  who discovered the attenuated strain of the yellow-fever virus which has been used as a vaccine since the 1930s.

Neither Jonas Salk nor Albert Sabin was rewarded for developing polio vaccines. The eradication of smallpox went uncelebrated too.

Given that Alfred Nobel's will calls for the prizes to go to those who have conferred the  greatest benefit on humankind, this poor record is undeserved. 

But although they may have gone without trips to Stockholm, nice fat cheques and 175 g gold medals portraying an entrepreneur in explosives, vaccine scientists can contemplate something better.

As the inscription to Christopher Wren in St Paul's Cathedral puts it :

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice { If you seek his monument, look around you }.

The vaccine-makers' work is commemorated in hundreds of millions of lives.

The World Health Organization [WHO] says that vaccines have saved more from death than any other medical invention. It is a hard claim to gainsay.

Vaccines protect people from disease cheaply, reliably and in remarkable numbers.

And their capacity to do so continues to grow. In 2021 the WHO approved a first vaccine against malaria ; this week it approved a second.

It is often said that Nobel's bequest was an atonement for destruction his explosives made possible.

His writings offer no evidence for that, but the sheer scale of the damage they did - the military use of explosives in 20th century wars is reckoned to have claimed 100 million to 150 million lives - is so great that the idea feels as if it should be true.

Vaccination is one of the few benefits conferred on humankind that measures up to the task. It is as though the world were able to run one of the terrible wars of the 20th century in reverse, saving millions of lives per year, every year.

'' Si expiationem requiris, circumspice.''

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!