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The Woman Behind the Vaccine Breakthrough


With her research, biochemist Katalin Karikó laid the foundation for the development of RNA vaccines against the coronavirus. Now she is being honoured for this by the Würzburg Societas Physico-Medica.

Researcher Katalin Karikó receives a prestigious award from Würzburg.
Researcher Katalin Karikó receives a prestigious award from Würzburg. (Image: Vilcek Foundation / MHamiltonVisuals /

She is "the woman behind the vaccine breakthrough", as Euronews writes. She made "a discovery that now seems worthy of a Nobel Prize to many experts", according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. And for the New York Times, she is "the woman who helped protect the world from the new Corona virus".

In all three cases, the biochemist Katalin Karikó is meant. Born in Hungary, she has been working in the USA since 1985 at the University of Pennsylvania and more lately at BioNTech as a Senior Vice president.

Her research focuses on RNA-mediated activation of the immune response. She thus paved the way "for the production of mRNA-based vaccines, on which great hopes currently rest in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic", as the Ärzteblatt writes.

Highest award in the life sciences at the University of Würzburg

Katalin Karikó is now being honoured for her work with the highest award in the life sciences at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany: the Würzburg Physical-Medical Society, the Societas Physico-Medica, and the committee of the Theodor Boveri Prize have awarded her the Theodor Boveri Lecture 2021.

With this award, the society honours "outstanding scientists whose excellent work has opened up new possibilities in biomedical research and its application to humans", as the laudation states.

Dr. Karikó also is the recipient of the $100,000 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology 2022 recognizing her research work that directly led to the development of the mRNA vaccines to combat COVID-19. The Vilcek Foundation awards this prize to immigrants to the United States who have had a significant impact on both American society and world culture, and to individuals who are dedicated champions of immigrant causes.

Decisive breakthrough after years of work

"Without the fundamental work of Katalin Karikó, it would not have been possible to develop an effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 within such a short time," says Professor Manfred Schartl, Chairman of Physico-Medica.

"Prof. Karikó has not let herself be deterred from pursuing her research despite numerous setbacks and many obstacles. This allowed her to achieve the decisive breakthrough after years of work in the laboratory," adds Professor Utz Fischer, spokesperson of the Biozentrum.

Date for the award ceremony is still open

This is the first time the Societas Physico-Medica has awarded the prize to a woman. Previous winners were the renowned scientists Edward De Robertis, Erich Nigg, Graham Warren and Denis Deboule.

Exactly when Katalin Karikó will give her "Theodor Boveri Lecture" has not yet been decided. The date for the award ceremony is also still open. However, the members of the prize committee are confident that an opportunity will be found in early 2022.

The Societas Physico-Medica

The Würzburg Physical-Medical Society (Societas Physico-Medica) was founded in 1849 as one of the first medical-scientific societies in Germany. Its "fathers" included the scientists Franz von Rinecker, Rudolf Virchow and Albert von Koelliker.

The aim of the society was and is to point out commonalities between medicine and the natural sciences and to promote their subjects. In addition, it wants to motivate physicians to work scientifically. It also offers students the opportunity to participate in current research projects during their studies.

The current chairman of the society is Professor Manfred Schartl, senior professor at the JMU Biocentre and previously holder of the JMU Chair of Physiological Chemistry.

Contact persons

Prof. Dr. Dr. Manfred Schartl, T: +49 931 318-4148,

Prof. Dr. Utz Fischer, T: +49 931 318-4029,

Homepage of Societas Physico-Medica

By Gunnar Bartsch