How Katalin Karikó Contributed to the COVID Vaccine

How Katalin Karikó Contributed to the COVID Vaccine

Karikó is a Hungarian who studied biochemistry and spent 40 years working and discovering some of the key facts for the Moderna and BioNTech vaccines.

Karikó is a Hungarian who studied biochemistry and spent 40 years working and discovering some of the key facts for the Moderna and BioNTech vaccines.

Born in a small Hungarian city, Katalin grew up in a very modest home without access to electricity or water. Despite her background, she is today one of the most influential people from the scientific community. Her discoveries have been vital for the creation of two of the most important vaccines for COVID-19.

After studying biology in Hungary,  she went to the United States for her doctorate in 1985 and never came back. She was then offered various positions around the world, but Hungarian communism made it difficult to accept those opportunities. During the 90s, no one supported her idea of using the RNA molecule for vaccines, which is now the same molecule being used by Moderna and BioNTech to fight coronavirus. 

Karikó faced several rejections from institutions and pharmaceutical companies when she asked them for funding to develop her work on RNA molecules. Merck & Co was one of the companies that turned down her request of 10,000 dollars to finance her investigation. Today, Moderna and BioNTech have received millions of euros from public funding to develop their vaccines in record times. This was the same idea that Karikó and a group of scientists had 30 years ago.


RNA is an essential molecule for life on earth. It acts as a messenger that gets into the nucleus of our cells,  then reads our genetic information (DNA), and then it comes out with the instructions to produce all of the proteins that we need to move, see, breath, reproduce and live. 

Karikó intended to use the cells of sick bodies so they produced the healing protein, injecting them a small RNA message. Everybody seems to understand this mechanism nowadays, according to Katalin, back then nobody understood this. In those times, genetic therapy was predominant, based on changing the DNA permanently to cure diseases. This theory began to be questioned when it was demonstrated that modifying DNA could generate mutations, even killing patients.

Some weeks ago, Derrick Rossi, one of the cofounders of Moderna, said to the STAT magazine, that Karikó and Weissman who worked with RNA deserved the chemistry Nobel prize. Many agree that all of the laboratories that currently work with RNA molecules, exist thanks to the work of Karikó and Weissman. Karikó has always declined all public recognition of her work, arguing that she doesn’t need them because she is convinced of the great importance of her work. When young, her mother told her she would win a Nobel prize one day, and Katalin told her that was impossible since she had not even won a scholarship.

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