Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian biochemist who was fundamental in the creation of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, is currently in Hungary until May 27. While her schedule and work responsibilities have kept her very busy, since she has arrived she has spoken at the Hungarian Academy of Science (MTA), given interviews to Hungarian media, and met with the rector of Semmelweis University, Béla Merkely.
At her speech for the 194th conference of the Hungarian Academy of Science (MTA), Katalin Karikó spoke about her career path, which started at the University of Szeged, and gave details on the scientific know-how of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology. It was Karikó’s decades of hard work which led to this technology becoming the foundation for Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine.
After her presentation, Karikó spoke to Telex and InfóRádió about a number of topics regarding vaccines, the pandemic, and mRNA technology in general.
How Long Does Immunity Last?
A notable topic as of late is the length of time that coronavirus vaccines provide immunity for. Karikó emphasized that while it is very difficult to determine this at the moment, it is estimated that the vaccine provides immunity for at least six months, if not more.
But there would be no point to me saying that we are immune for 5 years, how would I know? That much time has not elapsed.”
Karikó told InfóRádió that a good measure of how long immunity lasts is to check whether the people who were vaccinated caught the virus or not, and if so, how long after their vaccination. Otherwise time is the determining factor.
The reduction of antibodies is a natural occurrence for all vaccines, Karikó said, but this does not necessarily mean that immunity suddenly disappears. The Hungarian scientist brought up cell immunity, where certain cells learn how to defend against the virus, and even with a lower number of antibodies, they are able to combat the coronavirus long after inoculation if necessary.
Defeating the Coronavirus
Regarding the danger of Covid variants, Karikó said that these mutations may often work against the virus. Current tests show that double mutations can, in some cases, lower the virus’ capabilities, or simply make it similar to the original Wuhan strain.
Herd immunity is what would truly be ideal, Karikó said. While she did not want to speculate on when countries would reach this level of immunity, she emphasized that the more people who have antibodies and cell immunity, the fewer chances the virus has to mutate. The goal, she said, is to keep the number of antibodies high in order to make the virus completely disappear.
The Safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine
Currently only adults are being vaccinated against the coronavirus, since the safety of vaccines is not yet confirmed on children. While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is safe to use on teenagers between the age of 16-18, Karikó said that the company is currently testing vaccination for children between 11 and 15, as well as those under 11. So far, tests are looking promising.
One of the noticeable benefits to mRNA vaccines, Karikó said, is that they are much easier and quicker to produce. While other vaccines require an inactivated version of the coronavirus or a modified adenovirus, Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine can be put together in a laboratory without the need for foreign cells or bacteria.
Politics in Science and the Pandemic
Telex asked Karikó about the controversial vaccine table that was published by the government, to which she commented that based on the table, anyone who registered for a Pfizer vaccination was “essentially signing their death wish.”
All joking aside, the biochemist said that she regretted reacting to the government table, a response which she had written while she was half asleep.
A colleague of mine once said: do not get tied up in any kind of political issue, do not be a part of it, because they will pull you in, and no matter what you say, they will critique it.”
Karikó brought up that polarization is a big issue around the world, as it is in Hungary, between the government and the opposition. She wishes that some level of civil dialogue would be achieved, since a reluctance to consider both sides of an argument can result in a state of tunnel-vision, which does not help anyone.
The Future of mRNA Technology
Karikó is very optimistic about the future of the technology which she has worked on for decades. As it is a new technology, most of its use has been made noticeable on the coronavirus, but once the epidemic dies down, she said, Pfizer-BioNTech has plans to help combat other autoimmune illnesses, possibly even cancer.
Karikó said that animal trials indicate that mRNA could be effective in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and arthritis. It could also, by providing cell immunity, help the body fight cancer.
Karikó emphasized that mRNA technology is unique since it is adaptable to the individual. mRNA injected in the body can adapt to the conditions or cell mutations of an individual condition. One development that would be especially important for mRNA technology would be to ensure that the molecule only enters specific cells.
These are the most important developments for the future, since we already know how to make mRNA, and how to engineer it to create multiple proteins. What we do not know yet is how to achieve the point where it would only enter specific cells while avoiding others.”
Meeting With Semmelweis Rector
Aside from her interviews, the BioNTech vice president took some time to visit Béla Merkely, the rector of Budapest’s Semmelweis University.
According to Merkely’s Facebook post, they first showed Karikó the university’s clinic while discussing vaccines, messenger RNA, and mRNA’s future therapeutic opportunities. Thanks to Karikó’s experience in cardiology, the two are planning mutual scientific cooperation.
Mai napon meglátogatott minket Karikó Katalin a Semmelweis Egyetem Városmajori Klinikáján.
Az mRNS-alapú vakcinák…
Közzétette: Dr. Merkely Béla – 2021. május 5., szerda
After viewing Merkely complete a heart operation and attending a clinical epidemic meeting of four universities, Karikó received a silver medal from the rector. The medal, representing Ignác Semmelweis’ two hundredth birthday, was given to Karikó for her exceptional work in the fight against the coronavirus.
Featured photo by University of Szeged