There are myriad people who have played a role in COVID vaccine development and distribution in the U.S., many of whom have received (if not actively sought) recognition and celebration in the media highlighting their contributions.

The work that Katalin Kariko did with her colleague Dr. Drew Weissman, below, is the basis for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post

There are definitely prominent names that come to my mind when I think about COVID vaccine heroes, but until recently, Katalin Kariko was not one of those names for me – even though she should be.

Kariko is a Hungarian immigrant who theorized that mRNA could be harnessed to fight disease. After losing her research job in Hungary in 1985, she immigrated to the United States with her husband and young daughter. Kariko worked on her mRNA research for six years at the University of Pennsylvania, accumulating numerous rejections for research grants and eventually being demoted.

Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post

Kariko considered giving up. “I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else. … I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough,” she told Damian Garde of the medical news site Stat and Boston Globe reporter Jonathan Saltzman.

Fortunately for us, she did not give up, and the mRNA research of Kariko and her colleague Dr. Drew Weissman provides the foundation for two of the major COVID vaccines.

Now, when I think about COVID vaccine heroes, I think of the indomitable Kariko, and her colleague Weissman, without whom we likely would not have the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

Kelley McDaniel

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