At a time when the world is faced with multiple assaults from a frighteningly obscure virus, it cannot be mere coincidence that the Nobel Committee decided to anoint three scientists who peeled the layers off another virus that confounded generations of physicians — the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice, is a stout endorsement of years of work that went towards identifying one of the world’s greatest scourges. But to see it shorn of the context it is couched in would be to miss the larger point or purpose it could serve. Choosing researchers who went after a pathogen, and succeeded in unwrapping the whole puzzle at a time when others are fighting fatigue in a daily battle against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is also a hat tip to the virologists and geneticists burning the midnight oil, for over nine months now.
The accolades went to the three for identifying the viral origin of Hepatitis C. Their work, the Nobel statement said, characterised this form of hepatitis to be a distinct clinical entity, caused by an RNA virus of the Flavivirus family, now known as HCV. In fact, it was for the discovery of the Hepatitis B virus (HBV), and the development of the first-generation HBV vaccine, that Baruch Blumberg, whom the young Alter collaborated with, was awarded the 1976 Medicine Nobel. However, even the isolation of the HBV only partially eliminated the risk of contracting this severe liver disease transmitted through blood. The circle was only complete with the discovery of HCV. According to the WHO Global Hepatitis report, HBV and HCV are major causes for mortality and morbidity, with 1.34 million deaths reported in 2015, a 63% increase from 1990, mainly due to HCV. The number of deaths is also comparable to that caused by TB and higher than that caused by AIDS. The discoveries (of HBV and HCV), and the development of effective screening routines, have virtually eliminated the risk of transmission via blood products in much of the world. Also, with the development of effective drugs against HCV, it is possible that the threat of this viral infection will reduce, and hopefully, be eliminated soon. That is what makes this year’s Laureates’ achievement so tremendous. The Nobel Committee called it “among the most impactful scientific accomplishments of the 20th century”. In true lineage of other Nobel Prizes for Medicine, their identification represents “milestone achievements that have revolutionised medicine and substantially improved human health”. The triumph of humanity, over the pathogens that debilitate and kill men and women is certainly a singular achievement that is worth celebrating, and showcasing this achievement will send a deeply inspiring message at a time when another virus is holding the world to ransom.