William G. Kaelin receives his Nobel Prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden

The gap between a scientific discovery and recognition with a Nobel prize has grown over time.Credit: Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty

And the winner is … not COVID-19 vaccines. Despite sky-high hopes that one of the Nobel committees would recognize research on vaccines that have been administered to billions of people and have saved countless lives, this year’s science Nobels instead went to fundamental advances that had been tipped to win for years.

Some scientists expressed surprise and disappointment at the omission of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those developed using messenger RNA technology, which have launched a new class of vaccine.

“The Nobel Prize folks could have done something with this year’s award to directly aid global health efforts during a 100-year pandemic. And they chose not to. This is utter dereliction. It is an indefensible decision that will cost lives,” Alexey Merz, a cell biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote on Twitter on 5 October, after research into the mechanisms behind senses won this year’s medicine or physiology prize.

But Nobel prize insiders and watchers say that timing, technical details and politics meant that a nod this year was a long shot. However, the impact of COVID-19 vaccines — and the underlying advances — indicate that it shouldn’t be long before researchers behind the work get a call from Stockholm.

“The development of mRNA vaccines is a wonderful success story that has had enormous positive consequences for humankind. And we’re all very grateful to the scientists,” says Göran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, which selects the prize winners. “This is a kind of discovery that will receive nominations. But we need to take time.”

Not mRNA’s year

The timing didn’t work in favour of a COVID-19 Nobel this year. Nominations for this year’s prizes had to be submitted by 1 February. This was more than two months after the first mRNA vaccines, and some others, proved their mettle in clinical trials, but before their impact on the pandemic was fully clear, Hansson notes. “Follow-up is really still happening now.”

History was also against a nod for COVID-19 vaccines. The gap between a discovery and recognition with a scientific Nobel prize has grown over time, says Santo Fortunato, a physicist and director of the Indiana University Network Science Institute in Bloomington, and it now stands at an average of more than 30 years. The first experimental mRNA vaccines were tested in the mid-1990s, but key advances underlying the jabs developed by Moderna in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and by Pfizer in New York City and BioNTech in Mainz, Germany, didn’t come until the 2000s. And one could argue that the technology’s impact wasn’t apparent until this year.

But Fortunato says that major discoveries do tend to be recognized much more quickly. One potential parallel for mRNA vaccines is the detection of gravitational waves. The existence of gravitational waves was predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, but it took a century for researchers to develop the tools to detect them directly. Researchers announced their discovery in February 2016, and scientists behind the observations and theoretical work won the 2017 physics prize. For COVID-19 vaccines, “I’m not surprised it didn’t happen this year. I have no doubt it will be awarded really shortly,” Fortunato says.

When it comes to COVID-19, Brian Uzzi, a computational scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who studies scientific prizes, expects the Nobel committees to look more broadly than the development of vaccines. “Nobel prizes are more likely to go to scientists who teach people how to fish, rather than give them a fish,” he says. “They like to give prizes to people who do fundamental research that can go on and solve lots of different problems, not just one problem.” The committee could be waiting to gauge the impacts of mRNA vaccine technology on other infections — such as those caused by other coronaviruses, Uzzi speculates.

Nobel harbingers

COVID-19 vaccines have already started hoovering up major scientific prizes: last month, one of the US$3-million Breakthrough prizes went to two scientists who developed modifications that silenced unwanted immune responses and were key to the Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech vaccines. The same researchers also won one of the Lasker Foundation’s annual awards (considered by some to be predictors of Nobel prizes). The Nobel committees tend to be interested in rewarding research that has stood the test of time, rather than the latest advances, so Uzzi expects there will be more awards for COVID-19 vaccines before Stockholm comes knocking.

If the vaccines are awarded a Nobel prize, the committee will need to make some difficult decisions about whom to recognize and for what, say scientists. “I’m not surprised they held their fire,” says David Naylor, a physician-scientist at the University of Toronto, Canada. He expects the committee to look past the academic and corporate teams that developed the vaccines, and instead focus on more foundational work, such as that underlying mRNA vaccines. But even there, it’s not clear-cut who the recipients ought to be.

“I think the mRNA vaccines are obvious candidates,” agrees Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, who notes that the vaccines’ development has deep roots in several disciplines. “I can imagine the committee taking its time to sort out which contributions to recognize since many fields contributed to their deployment.”

Working all this out takes time, Hansson says. “We want to give credit to the right people. And for the right discovery,” he says. “So stay tuned.”