Under pandemic spotlight, Nobel prize season back

COVID-19 vaccine pioneers, media watchdogs, climate activists and Belarus opposition leaders are just some of those tipped for Nobel glory when the latest prize recipients are announced from Monday against the background of the pandemic.

Launched 120 years ago, the medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace awards created by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, as well as the more recent economics prize, will be given out in Stockholm and Oslo from October 4-11.

While the list of contenders is a closely guarded secret, Nobel experts say research on messenger RNA (mRNA), which forms the basis of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, is a hot favourite for the medicine or chemistry prizes.

“It would be a mistake if the Nobel Committee did not give the prize to mRNA vaccine technology,” Swedish science journalist Ulrika Bjorksten told AFP.

She cited as possible laureates Katalin Kariko of Hungary and Drew Weissman of the United States, whose pioneering research led directly to the first mRNA vaccines.

These have been injected into over a billion people worldwide in a race to ease a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 4.7 million people. 

Kariko and Weissman have already received several accolades, including the Lasker Prize in the US, often seen as a precursor to the Nobel.

Other fields that could be honoured include cell communication, the workings of the immune system, the discovery of the breast cancer gene, epigenetics and antibiotic resistance.

The medicine prize opens the Nobel season on Monday, followed by the awards for physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and peace on Friday.

The economics prize wraps up the Nobel season on October 11.

Among those generating buzz for the peace prize – the only one to be given in Oslo – are media watchdogs, Belarusian opposition leaders and climate campaigners, such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

The image of the prestigious award has been hit hard over the past years as one of its previous laureates, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, became embroiled in a war.

Another, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, was accused of defending the massacre of members of the Rohingya minority.

Last year, the World Food Program won.

There is speculation that climate activists are next in line as the world experiences a torrent of deadly weather disasters, from asphalt-melting heatwaves to flash floods and untameable wildfires.

“It is the most important issue at the moment,” said Nobel historian Asle Sveen.

Other experts believe the time may be right for organisations fighting for freedom of information and the rights of journalists, such as Reporters Without Borders or the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Non-violent opposition of Belarus’s autocratic regime, spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is also seen as a worthy winner.

Although earlier deemed favourites, the World Health Organization and the Covax vaccine-sharing scheme have been hampered by the slow distribution of jabs to poor countries. 

Topics: COVID-19 , vaccine , mRNA vaccine technology , Katalin Kariko
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