Vanquishing viruses: On Nobel prize for medicine

GS 3 – Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.


     The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice. Who peeled the layers off another virus that confounded generations of physicians the Hepatitis C virus (HCV).

Identification of Hepatitis C virus:

  • The virus eluded isolation for over a decade.
  • Michael Houghton, working for the pharmaceutical firm Chiron, undertook the arduous work needed to isolate the genetic sequence of the virus.
  • Created a collection of DNA fragments from nucleic acids found in the blood of an infected chimpanzee.
  • The majority of these fragments came from the genome of the chimpanzee itself, but the researchers predicted that some would be derived from the unknown virus.
  • On the assumption that antibodies against the virus would be present in blood taken from hepatitis patients, the investigators used patient sera to identify cloned viral DNA fragments encoding viral proteins.
  • One positive clone was found.
  • Further work showed that this clone was derived from a novel RNA virus belonging to the Flavivirus family and it was named Hepatitis C virus.
  • Presence of antibodies in chronic hepatitis patients strongly implicated this virus as the missing agent.


  • Liver inflammation or hepatitis, is mainly caused by viral infections, alcohol abuse, environmental toxins and autoimmune disease.
  • In the 1940’s, it became clear that there are two main types of infectious hepatitis. 
  • The first Hepatitis A, is transmitted by polluted water or food and generally has little long-term impact on the patient.
  • The second type is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids and represents a much more serious threat since it can lead to a chronic condition.(with the development of cirrhosis and liver cancer.)

Healthy individuals can be silently infected for many years before serious complications arise.

  • Blood-borne hepatitis is associated with significant morbidity and mortality
    • Causes more than a million deaths per year world-wide
    • Thus making it a global health concern on a scale comparable to HIV-infection and tuberculosis.


  • Hepatitis A is usually a short-term infection.
  • Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C 
    • can also begin as short-term infections
    • but in some people, the virus remains in the body
    • causes chronic (long-term) infection.
  • There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.
  • There was no vaccine for hepatitis C.
    • can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, long-term illness.


  • 40 million people are chronically infected with the Hepatitis B virus.
  • 6 to 12 million with the Hepatitis C virus.
  • World Health Organization :- 71 million people in the world have chronic infection with the Hepatitis C virus, which is also a major cause of liver cancer.
    • vaccine for the disease has still not been developed but it can be treated with the help of anti-viral drugs.

In India:

  • In 2018 the National Viral Hepatitis Control Programme (NVHCP) was launched which has the target to eliminate Hepatitis C by 2030.
    • largest program for Hepatitis B and C diagnosis and treatment in the world.
  • Hepatitis B is included under India’s Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) which provides free of cost vaccination against a total of 12 vaccine-preventable diseases.
  • The first recombinant DNA-based vaccine for Hepatitis-B infection was made in India by Hyderabad-based Shantha Biotech.

Nobel Prize-awarded discovery:

  • The Nobel Laureates discovery of Hepatitis C virus is a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases.
    • Highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available
    • These have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world.
    • greatly improving global health.
    • Raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population.
  • Discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C.

Way Forward 

      To achieve this goal

  • international efforts facilitating blood testing.
  • making antiviral drugs available across the globe will be required.


       The Nobel Committee called it “among the most impactful scientific accomplishments of the 20th century”. The triumph of humanity, over the pathogens that debilitate and kill humans is certainly 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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