Early Monday morning as I was getting ready for work, I was perusing X, a.k.a. the platform formerly known as Twitter, and came across an announcement from the Nobel Prize committee that Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman had the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of RNA modifications that made possible the incredibly rapid development of mRNA-based vaccines against COVID in 2020, from conception to testing to emergency use approval (EUA), within nine months:
My first thought was: Good! They deserve it! My second thought was: Antivaxxers are going to lose their minds over the creators of mRNA vaccines. Let’s just say that their reaction didn’t take long to manifest itself, and they didn’t disappoint.
I first wondered what Dr. Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone would say about Karikó and Weissman’s becoming Nobel Laureates. If you’ve been paying attention to antivaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories, you know that, since the mRNA vaccines were announced to be in development over three years ago, Dr. Malone has been claiming to the the True Inventor of mRNA Vaccines, to the point where his wife tried to edit his Wikipedia entry to play up his role in the discovery far beyond his relatively minor role in getting mRNA to express protein in cells. He even posited a conspiracy theory that he was being “erased” from Wikipedia’s entry on mRNA vaccines. Since then, he’s gone full antivax conspiracist in a big way. So naturally, it was entirely to be expected that he might not react…well…to this announcement.
That’s putting it mildly. Three hours after the announcement, here he was on X/Twitter:
Of course, here Dr. Malone is parroting a common false antivax claim, namely that the mRNA modified by using pseudouridine to prolong its half-life results in “unlimited” spike protein being produced by the cells; i.e., that the vaccine results in basically endless production of spike protein (which they view as far more toxic when made in infinitesimal amounts that the vaccine induces muscle cells to make than when being made in much larger amounts by an actual…oh, you know…COVID-19 infection). He also repeats his false claim as having been the inventor of mRNA vaccines. Also note the conspiracy theory that Pfizer has been campaigning for this and that Karikó and Weissman got the award because Pfizer supposedly donates heavily to the Karolinska Institutet.
I was naturally curious about this claim; so I looked into it. On the Karolinska Institutet’s website, I learned:
Research accounts for 84% of Karolinska Institutet’s annual turnover, and the revenues for the research area in 2021 were just over SEK 6.3 billion. External funders account for about 53% of research revenues. The largest financial contributions, except government base-funding, come from the Swedish Research Council, the EU, the Swedish Cancer Society, and the Wallenberg Foundations. The public healthcare system within Region Stockholm is also a significant research funder.
From the US, a number of sources contribute:
Karolinska Institutet is the largest recipient of external research funding from the United States among Swedish universities. In 2022, US financiers contributed almost SEK 103 million to KI’s research, with grants from both federal funders such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private foundations.
The EU has also contributed. Nowhere could I find a listing of how much Pfizer might have contributed to the Karolinska Institute or what for. Surely Dr. Malone has a source, right? Even if Pfizer does fund research at the Karolinska Institute, of course, the Nobel Assembly there that picks the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine is made up of 50 professors from the Institute. It is a private body that is not actually part of the Institute, as well. But, again, I’m sure that Dr. Malone has evidence other than insinuation that Pfizer bought the Nobel Prize for Drs. Karikó and Weissman, right?
The next day, Dr. Malone went on quite the rant on his Substack. You could tell he was upset because he didn’t paywall his rant. Clearly he wanted everyone to read it, not just his subscribers. Characteristically, he starts with a self-pitying whine:
So, it finally happened. And with the announcement came yet another wave of troll and bot attacks on my credibility. Coupled with social media calls for me to comment on the event. Commenting on which I am generally not comfortable with, because I am not prone to pettiness. Jill and I gave ourselves a day to just breathe, discuss the meaning and implications, and process and respond to the many kind, supportive comments and condolences from friends and colleagues from all over the world.
Seriously, if you falsely claim the mantle of the “real inventor of mRNA vaccines” for three years while referring to Karikó and Weissman (and, of course, Pfizer and Moderna) as having basically stolen your work and falsely taken the credit, you should expect that when they win the Nobel Prize for the discovery and you do not there will be deserved mockery. It’s equally amusing how you start out with “congratulations to Drs. Kariko and Weissman,” noting that the “award comes on top of having received the Lasker award, and similar awards from the governments of Spain and Israel.” Such faux graciousness is exceedingly transparent.
After once again claiming that he really invented mRNA vaccines, he pivots from his “congratulations” to do everything he can to minimize and downplay Karikó and Weissman’s discovery, first quoting the announcement for the reason that they won the prize: “For their discoveries concerning nucleotide base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.”
Naturally, to him it’s all a conspiracy to rob him of his proper due as the One True Inventor of mRNA Vaccines. For example, he whines that Karikó and Weissman’s key scientific papers were published 15 years after his first publications. Again, I note that this would be around 1990, and I happen to know a bit about what was going on with respect to getting mRNA and plasmids to make protein in muscle cells then. The state of the science was quite primitive, but I was in a laboratory where one of the graduate students was. working on a project in which he injected plasmid DNA into chick embryo muscle and measured the expression of a reporter gene. He was able to demonstrate gene regulation with specific gene regulatory elements known as promoters and enhancers, something that had previously only been done in cell culture. Let’s just put it this way. Even if Dr. Malone had come up with the idea of using mRNA to make vaccines then, his work never led to an effective vaccine. To win a Nobel Prize and all the plaudits associated with it, it’s rather a requirement that your discovery lead to something other than a dead end.
Still, Malone tries:
“Enabled the development” is actually a false statement. The incorporation of pseudouridine was not an “enabling” improvement on the existing state of the art. This is demonstrated by the robust clinical (human) adaptive antibody vaccine response to the CureVac SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate, which did not incorporate pseudouridine. The dose (and apparently the toxicity) of the mRNA formulation employed by CureVac in their clinical tests was lower than that employed by Moderna and BioNTech, and the antibody titers were also lower. But still quite substantial. There is no evidence that antibody titer translates to clinical protection from SARS-CoV-2 infection or COVID-19 disease, but despite this fact it was widely inferred and publicized that the CureVac product was inferior. Whether or not this was the case we will never know, as further clinical testing at a higher dose was not performed- CureVac basically gave up on competing in the COVID-19 vaccine race, presumably due to lack of sufficient funds. However, there is no disputing the fact that incorporation of pseudouridine is not required for delivered mRNA to elicit an adaptive immune (antibody) response. In sum, the claim that pseudouridine incorporation is an “enabling” improvement on prior art (that being patent and inventorship language) is clearly false for this reason.
This is sophistry at its finest. First of all, note that CureVac, even in Dr. Malone’s telling, produced a lower antibody titer; so he tries his best to claim that that doesn’t mean it was a potentially less effective vaccine. Also, he fixates a lot on the words “enabled” and “enabling.” Let’s put it this way. The Nobel Committee didn’t say that there weren’t other ways, that pseudouridine was the only way. It said that pseudouridine enabled the creation of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. Basically, the use of pseudouridine won the race and enabled this generation of COVID-19 vaccines, and that’s a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, which led to the predictable outburst of whinging from Dr. Malone, including his parroting of the usual antivax distortions and misinformation about the vaccines not being effective and supposedly not saving many lives.
My favorite part is this:
The remarkably rapid development and deployment of these mRNA products parallel and correspond to the timelines achieved by other more traditional COVID-19 vaccines (“Sputnik” series etc.). This is not the consequence of the mRNA/pseudouridine technology, but rather to the willingness of regulatory authorities worldwide to suspend normal vaccine non-clinical and clinical development processes required to assess safety and efficacy. The committee asserts that these vaccines were “approved” as early as December 2020, which is another falsehood. These products were Emergency Use Authorized via suspension of normal testing, processes and review.
Yes, but guess what? In 2020, as the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread across the globe, requirements were streamlined not just for COVID-19 vaccines but for any vaccine against COVID-19. Governments didn’t care how a vaccine was produced or whether it was mRNA-based or the “old-fashioned” variety based on using a a protein antigen; they just wanted safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines—STAT!—to use to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. And guess what kind of vaccines won the race? The mRNA vaccines. That’s because, as the Nobel Committee noted, that’s one key advantage of the mRNA technology, the ability to take the gene coding for the protein that you want to use as an antigen and use it to make mRNA to use in vaccines to drive production of that protein antigen in the vaccinated subject. If you know the gene sequence, it’s almost trivial to make the mRNA. As for the EUA, an EUA is not full approval, but it is a regulatory approval. Also, the US isn’t the only country in the world, although American antivaxxers like Malone frequently seem to think that it is.
Amusingly, not all antivaxxers side with Dr. Malone. A lot of them consider mRNA vaccines to be pure evil and therefore find Dr. Malone’s thirst to be given credit for them to be…unseemly—sometimes in hilarious ways.
However, leave it to John Leake over at COVID-19 quack Dr. Peter McCullough’s Substack to bring the antivax stupid to the party. Unable to deny that Karikó and Weissman had been key to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, Leake does the only thing that’s left. he tries to discredit the Nobel Prize itself by pointing out its stumbles over its century-long history:
Without question, the German chemist Fritz Haber was a genius, but he was a spectacular example of a scientist whose work came unmoored from ethics. In reviewing his career, I am struck with both admiration and horror.
On the one hand, Haber largely invented the Haber–Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, which enabled the industrial-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives. About one-third of annual global food production uses ammonia from the Haber–Bosch process, supporting nearly half of the world’s population. It seems to me that for this achievement, Haber definitely deserved the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
What remains controversial about this decision was that Professor Haber is also widely regarded as the father of modern chemical warfare. A fierce German nationalist, he applied his genius to developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases for the German military during World War I. His work directly resulted in the widespread practice of mustard gas attacks.
His wife, Clara Immerwahr, was so horrified by reports of the Second Battle of Ypres, where mustard gas resulted in 67,000 casualties, that it my have contributed to her decision to commit suicide with his service revolver.
Though Professor Haber always defended his work on chlorine gas weapons, it is a notable irony of history that his technology was used to develop Zyklon-B, which was later used for the mass murder of Jewish concentration camp inmates during the Nazi era. Haber was born into a prominent Jewish family in the Prussian city of Breslau.
Got that? A chemist who developed a chemical process that could be used for evil—the Holocaust, even!—won the Nobel Prize. So that must mean that the Nobel Prize is corrupt. Of course, Professor Huber didn’t win the Prize for a process that was intended to produce Zykon-B. (His process was used to produce Zyklon-B without his involvement.). He won it for a process that produces large amounts of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen that can be used as fertilizer and explosives, the latter of which have numerous peacetime uses as well. It is true that his discovery was also used for other purposes, and, yes, unfortunately he himself did develop it for use it for warfare. One can argue whether he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize, given how, when World War I began, he immediately saw how his process, which could be used to produce huge quantities of nitrogen-containing fertilizer that could help feed the world (indeed, it is estimated that half the world’s agriculture is supported through the Haber-Bosch process), could also be used to produce chemical warfare gases, but there is no doubt that his process was also a boon to agriculture. Ironically, because Huber was Jewish by birth, he was forced to flee Germany when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, even though he had converted to Christianity, laboring under the delusion that his service in WWI would shield him. He died less than a year later.
Still, to Leake, Haber’s Nobel Prize obviously means that the award to Karikó and Weissman must be totally suspect, akin to awarding the prize to the “father of chemical warfare” and enabler of the Holocaust. Subtle. And dumb. The story was much more complex than that. Nor was Mr. Leake the only one making this offensive analogy:
Going from an arguably poor choice for Nobel Prize based on moral considerations, Leake then predictably goes deep into the stupid to cite Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his 1939 discovery of the insecticidal properties of DDT for controlling vector diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Of course, in 1948, when Müeller was awarded the prize, the harmful effects of DDT hadn’t come to light yet. That would be 14 years in the future with Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring.
I feel obligated to point out here that in 1948 DDT was definitely a seemingly miraculous finding. It was not inherently harmful in and of itself. What caused the harm was its massively irresponsible overuse during the 1950s and 1960s, which selected for resistant mosquitoes and caused the environmental harms warned about by Carson, to the point where governments were decreasing their use of DDT before Silent Spring was ever published. Not coincidentally, the pesticide and agriculture industries and their allies mounted a well-funded campaign to deny the harm being done. In addition to taking a page from the tobacco industry and publishing bad science, they tried their best to defame Carson in order to discredit her, an effort that continues to this very day with the lie that Carson “killed millions” through her work warning about DDT. It’s misinformation and revisionist history that has even been promoted by a hero of mine, Dr. Paul Offit, much to my extreme disappointment. He even parroted the right wing lie that Rachel Carson was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. It is ironic to see someone associated with right wing COVID-19 minimizers and antivaxxers implicitly saying that Rachel Carson was correct in order to attack the Nobel Prize and two Nobel Laureates.
The only example that Leake cites that was inarguably—to me, at least— a major misfire by the Nobel Assembly was its award to in 1949 to Antonio Egas Moniz for inventing the lobotomy for treating mental illness, a truly horrific operation whose use in the 1940s and 1950s spread like wildfire without any good scientific evidence. That was a bad one, for sure and will forever be a blight on the Nobel Prize (along with Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize). However, how many Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine have there been? (The answer is 227 sharing 114 Nobel Prizes.) Leake could only come up with one clear stinker. (I dispute that, given what was known at the time, the award for the discovery of the utility of DDT was actually a horrific misfire. At the time, it no doubt seemed like a huge contribution to massively decreasing the number of people who suffered and died from malaria and other insect-borne diseases.)
All of this leads Mr. Leake to predict darkly:
Yesterday I was reminded of the Nobel Prizes for Fritz Haber, Paul Müller. and Antonio Moniz, when I saw that the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet had awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.
I suspect that in the years ahead, there will be a dawning realization that a medical technology celebrated for advancing human progress was in fact poorly understood at best, and resulted in an array of unforeseen harms.
Suspect all you want, Mr. Leake. Your attempts to downplay the significance of Karikó and Weissman’s work and their deserving of the Nobel Prize is transparent as hell. In the meantime, the tears of antivaxxers trying to portray the discovery as either insignificant or to portray the Nobel Prize as not indicative of scientific significance are delicious.