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September 25, 2020

The 2020 Lasker Awards and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Author Affiliations
  • 1Chair of the Lasker Medical Research Awards Jury
  • 2University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas
JAMA. 2020;324(15):1497-1498. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.17056

The 2020 Lasker Awards will not be given this year owing to the global coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. One way to help fill this void is to reflect and celebrate the major advances in infectious disease research that have been honored with Lasker Awards over the last 75 years.

Since 1946, when the Lasker Awards were first presented, 29 awards have been bestowed on 5 organizations and 35 individuals who expanded scientific knowledge concerning how viruses and other infectious pathogens cause disease (7 awards), how infections can be treated with drugs (7 awards), and how infections can be prevented with vaccines (15 awards).

Lasker Awards and Award Recipients

The accompanying Figure lists these 29 awards and their recipients together with the citations summarizing the advances. The first Lasker Award for an infectious disease advance was given in 1946 and was the inaugural clinical award. Its recipient was John F. Mahoney, a physician-scientist who pioneered the treatment of syphilis with penicillin.

Figure.  Seventy-Five Years of Lasker Awards That Recognize Advances in Infectious Disease
Seventy-Five Years of Lasker Awards That Recognize Advances in Infectious Disease

The first Lasker Award for a basic science discovery in this field was given in 1948 to Selman A. Waksman, a bacteriologist, for his discovery of streptomycin as treatment for tuberculosis. The first Lasker Award for vaccine research was given in 1947 to Thomas Francis Jr, a virologist and epidemiologist, for his work on influenza types A and B. Twelve of the 17 vaccines recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “for dangerous or deadly diseases” were developed by Lasker laureates.

Awards for Polio

Of the advances for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases honored with Lasker Awards, those for polio have been most frequently recognized. The first award was given in 1954 to John F. Enders for cultivation of the polio virus, the second in 1956 to Jonas E. Salk for development of an injectable polio vaccine, the third in 1958 to Basil O’Connor for elaborating a public health strategy for eradicating polio, and the fourth in 1965 to Albert B. Sabin for development of an oral polio vaccine.

Nobel Prize Winners

Of the 35 Lasker Award winners in the field of infectious disease, 7 subsequently received a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine: Max Theiler (1951), Waksman (1952), Enders (1954), Stanley B. Prusiner (1997), Barry J. Marshall (2005), Luc Montagnier (2008), and Tu Youyou (2015).

Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is now being intensely investigated by tens of thousands of scientists both in academia and in the biopharmaceutical industry throughout the world. Many bold and creative experimental approaches are being developed, including vaccines.

It will be essential that the results of these laboratory experiments be rigorously tested in appropriately controlled clinical studies. These types of studies necessitate complex, worldwide collaborations that involve teams of clinical investigators working directly with pharmaceutical scientists.

Hopefully, the forthcoming clinical trials will produce multiple types of effective and safe therapies, including (1) oral drugs for inhibiting the protease and replicase activities of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2; (2) monoclonal antibodies for blocking viral entry into cells; and (3) vaccines for preventing infection.

If such therapies do prove successful in treating patients and ameliorating the COVID-19 pandemic, they will be rapidly recognized as advances of immense importance to humanity. They will also be widely celebrated by the global scientific community as landmark discoveries in infectious disease.

The COVID-19 discoveries will be worthy of future Lasker Awards much like the standout advances that have led to progress in the control of polio, hepatitis, and HIV/AIDS.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Joseph L. Goldstein, MD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, 5323 Harry Hines Blvd, Dallas, TX 75390 (joe.goldstein@utsouthwestern.edu).

Published Online: September 25, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.17056

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Goldstein reported being a member of the board of directors of Regeneron Pharmaceutical Inc, which is one of the companies developing monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19.

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    1 Comment for this article
    Omission from This List
    Cheung Yue, M.D. | MetroHealth Medical Center
    Listed under "Historical Archive: Awards No Longer Given by the Foundation" is this award in 1954 given to the laboratory head by Dr. Charles H. Rammelkamp, Jr, a person near and dear to the heart of many former trainees at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, now know as MetroHealth Medical center:

    "1954 - Streptococcal Disease Laboratory, Armed Forces Epidemiological Board, Francis E. Warren Air Force Base: Charles H. Rammelkamp, Jr., Director

    For outstanding contributions to our knowledge and control of streptococcal diseases. "
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: None Reported
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