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The development of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the first approved jab in the West, is the crowning achievement of decades of work for Hungarian biochemist Katalin Kariko, who fled to the US from communist rule in the 1980s.
When trials found the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to be safe and 95 percent effective in November, it was the crowning achievement of Katalin Kariko’s 40 years of research on the genetic code RNA (ribonucleic acid). Her first reaction was a sense of “redemption,” Kariko told The Daily Telegraph.
“I was grabbing the air, I got so excited I was afraid that I might die or something,” she said from her home in Philadelphia. “When I am knocked down I know how to pick myself up, but I always enjoyed working… I imagined all of the diseases I could treat.”
Born in January 1955 in a Christian family in the town of Szolnok in central Hungary – a year before the doomed heroism of the uprising against the Soviet-backed communist regime – Kariko grew up in nearby Kisujszellas on the Great Hungarian Plain, where her father was a butcher. Fascinated by science from a young age, Kariko began her career at the age of 23 at the University of Szeged’s Biological Research Centre, where she obtained her PhD.
It was there that she first developed her interest in RNA. But communist Hungary’s laboratories lacked resources, and in 1985 the university sacked her. Consequently, Kariko looked for work abroad, getting a job at Temple University in Philadelphia the same year. Hungarians were forbidden from taking money out of the country, so she sold the family car and hid the proceeds in her 2-year-old daughter’s teddy bear. “It was a one-way ticket,” she told Business Insider. “We didn’t know anybody.”
Not everything went as planned after Kariko’s escape from communism. At the end of the 1980s, the scientific community was focused on DNA, which was seen as the key to understanding how to develop treatments for diseases such as cancer. But Kariko’s main interest was RNA, the genetic code that gives cells instructions on how to make proteins.
At the time, research into RNA attracted criticism because the body’s immune system sees it as an intruder, meaning that it often provokes strong inflammatory reactions. In 1995, Kariko was about to be made a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but instead she was consigned to the rank of researcher.
“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” Kariko told medical publication Stat. She went through a cancer scare at the time, while her husband was stuck in Hungary trying to sort out visa issues. “I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments,” she continued. Kariko was also on the receiving end of sexism, with colleagues asking her the name of her supervisor when she was running her own lab.
Kariko persisted in the face of these difficulties. “From outside, it seemed crazy, struggling, but I was happy in the lab,” she told Business Insider. “My husband always, even today, says, ‘This is entertainment for you.’ I don’t say that I go to work. It is like play.” Thanks to Kariko’s position at the University of Pennsylvania, she was able to send her daughter Susan Francia there for a quarter of the tuition costs. Francia won gold on the US rowing team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
It was a serendipitous meeting in front of a photocopier in 1997 that turbocharged Kariko’s career. She met immunologist Drew Weissman, who was working on an HIV vaccine. They decided to collaborate to develop a way of allowing synthetic RNA to go unrecognised by the body’s immune system – an endeavour that succeeded to widespread acclaim in 2005. The duo continued their research and succeeded in placing RNA in lipid nanoparticles, a coating that prevents them from degrading too quickly and facilitates their entry into cells.
The researchers behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs used these techniques to develop their vaccines.
Israel‘s Health Minister Edelstein provided ministry data showing that 2,272,000 people have so far had the first of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, including 550,000 who have also had their second dose. The number represents close to a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens and maintains its position as the country with the highest per capita vaccination rate in the world, according to monitoring groups.
Edelstein on Wednesday presented figures showing that over 210,000 vaccination shots were administered the day before, a new record for the country’s mass inoculation program.
Israelis recieve a Covid-19 vaccine, at a vaccination center operated by the Tel Aviv Municipality
Urging continued adherence to Health Ministry lockdown guidelines, which on Tuesday were extended until January 31, Edelstein wrote “a little more and this will be behind us.”
His figures were more optimistic than numbers released by the ministry during the morning, which showed that 56,008 people had their first dose on Tuesday and another 114,769 had the second shot for a total of 170,777. It was not clear why there was a discrepancy in the numbers.
The ministry said 8,511 new cases were confirmed Tuesday, a drop of some 1,500 from the record-shattering 10,058 cases detected on Monday. The figure for Tuesday was the lowest weekday daily caseload in over a week. The positive test rate also dropped to 9.2%, having reached 10.2% on Monday.
Norway expressed increasing concern about the safety of the Pfizer Inc. vaccine on elderly people with serious underlying health conditions after raising an estimate of the number who died after receiving inoculations to 29. The latest figure adds six to the number of known fatalities in Norway, and lowers the age group thought to be affected to 75 from 80. While it’s unclear exactly when the deaths occurred, Norway has given at least one dose to about 42,000 people and focused on those considered most at risk if they contract the virus, including the elderly.
“There are 13 deaths that have been assessed, and we are aware of another 16 deaths that are currently being assessed,” the agency said. All the reported deaths related to “elderly people with serious basic disorders,” it said. “Most people have experienced the expected side effects of the vaccine, such as nausea and vomiting, fever, local reactions at the injection site, and worsening of their underlying condition.”
Official reports of allergic reactions have been rare as governments rush to roll out vaccines to try to contain the global pandemic. U.S. authorities reported 21 cases of severe allergic reactions from Dec. 14-23 after administration of about 1.9 million initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The first Europe-wide safety report on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is due to be published at the end of January. Until Friday, the vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech SE was the only one available in Norway, and “all deaths are thus linked to this vaccine,” the Norwegian Medicines Agency said in a written response to Bloomberg on Saturday.