Time Names Weissman a Hero of the Year

Time magazine's portrait of Drew Weissman, Katalin Karikó, Kizzmekia Corbett and Barney Graham
Clockwise from top left: Drew Weissman ’81, GSAS MA’81, P’15; Katalin Karikó; Barney Graham; and Kizzmekia Corbett.

Drew Weissman ’81, GSAS MA’81, P’15, has been named one of 2021’s Heroes of the Year by Time magazine for his work leading to the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

After years of painstaking research, Weissman and research partner Katalin Karikó found that by engineering a modified version of messenger RNA and then developing a system to deliver it, they could trick the immune system into thinking the body is infected with a virus and produce antibodies to create at least partial immunity. The discoveries laid the groundwork for the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Kizzmekia Corbett and Barney Graham, whose work in structure-based vaccine design was foundational in developing COVID vaccines, joined Weissman and Karikó as the quartet of scientists Time recognized.

Time describes how Weissman and Karikó met at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998:

An immunologist and physician named Drew Weissman had just joined Penn to start a lab focused on developing a vaccine against HIV and other diseases. He and Karikó shared a habit of photocopying articles out of recent scientific journals from the research library. By the machine, they discussed their respective approaches to vaccine development. Karikó tried to convince Weissman of the still unappreciated merits of the synthetic RNA she was making. “I’m open to anything,” says Weissman, and so he decided to give it a shot.

Years of research led to the pair’s landmark paper in the journal Immunity in 2005. Yet, as Time notes, it took “another 15 years — and the emergence of the devastating SARS-CoV-2 virus — before the global science community would finally grasp the importance of their discoveries.”