Editorial Analysis for 7th October 2020

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Vanquishing viruses: On Nobel prize for medicine


Mains: General Studies-III: Technology, Economic Development, Bio diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management


The Nobel Prize for Medicine is an inspiration to researchers working on SARS-CoV-2

Hope for solving SARS-CoV-2 puzzle:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Breakthrough in Physiology:

  • The accolades went to the three for identifying the viral origin of Hepatitis C.
  • Their work, characterised this form of hepatitis to be a distinct clinical entity, caused by an RNA virus of the Flavivirusfamily, 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.
  • 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.

What WHO Global Hepatitis report says:

  • 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.
  • 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.

What is Hepatitis C virus?

  • Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and causes Hepatitis C disease which affects the liver.
  • According to WHO, “globally, an estimated 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C virus infection and a significant number develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.”
  • In 2016, it was estimated that approximately 3,99,000 people died globally from hepatitis C.

How did they discover a new virus?

  • Harvey J. Alter who was studying hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions, found many unexplained infections.
  • Tests for Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B virus infection showed that they were not the cause.
  • His team demonstrated that blood from these patients could transmit the disease to chimpanzees, and more studies showed that an unknown infectious agent was behind this.
  • The mysterious new illness was termed “non-A, non-B” hepatitis.
  • This new virus could not be isolated for several years using the traditional techniques for virus isolation.
  • Michael Houghton and his team created a collection of DNA fragments from the blood of an infected chimpanzee and thoroughly searched it.
  • They found a novel RNA virus belonging to the Flavivirus family and named it the Hepatitis C virus.
  • To understand if this new virus alone could cause hepatitis, Charles M. Rice used genetic engineering, generated an RNA variant of the virus and injected it into the liver of chimpanzees.
  • The virus was detected in the blood and the chimpanzees exhibited changes similar to those seen in humans with the disease.
  • This was the final proof that the virus alone was the cause behind the unexplained cases of transfusion-mediated hepatitis.

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 revolutionized medicine and substantially improved human health”.
  • The discoveries by the three Nobel laureates have helped design sensitive blood tests that have eliminated the risk of transfusion-transmitted hepatitis.
  • Their discovery also helped develop antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C.
  • This has now raised hopes of eradicating the virus from the world population.


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.

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