By Simon Johnson and Douglas Busvine
STOCKHOLM/BERLIN (Reuters) - Two Americans and a Briton won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday for identifying the hepatitis C virus, in work spanning decades that has helped to limit the spread of the fatal disease and develop drugs to cure it.
The discoveries by Harvey Alter, Charles Rice and Briton Michael Houghton mean there is now a chance of eradicating the hepatitis C virus - a goal the World Health Organization wants to achieve in the next decade.
"It's so other-worldly - it's something you don't think will ever happen," Alter, 85, said after picking up the phone only after a third pre-dawn call from Stockholm.
The trio share the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.1 million) award for discovering and proving that a blood-borne virus causes hepatitis C, which afflicts 70 million people and causes 400,000 deaths each year.
"(To) go from basically the beginning-part of this discovery to when it can be successfully treated - this is kind of a rare treat for a basic scientist," Rice, 68, told reporters on a Zoom call.
Nominations for this year's award preceded the global spread of the new coronavirus pandemic, but the choice of winners recognises the importance of identifying a virus as the first step in winning the battle against a new disease.
Rice said advances in gene sequencing would make it possible today for researchers to achieve "spectacular" progress towards developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
Nearly 3 million hepatitis C sufferers are co-infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, according to the WHO.
The shared prize recognizes research dating back to the 1960s when Alter, at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that a liver disease that was not hepatitis A or B could be spread through blood transfusions.
A team led by Houghton, then working for the pharmaceuticals firm Chiron, created a clone of a new virus in the mid-1980s from fragments found in the blood of an infected chimpanzee.
The disease it causes was named hepatitis C. Its identification made it possible to develop tests to screen bloodbank supplies and greatly reduce the spread of the disease, which can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.
"We thought it would be solved quickly, but it actually took seven years to find," Houghton told a news conference on Zoom. "I thought I was going mad."
The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle came when Rice, now at Rockefeller University in New York, was able to genetically engineer a version of the hepatitis C virus and demonstrate that it alone could cause symptoms in a chimpanzee comparable to an infection in humans.
But Rice told Reuters that the WHO was unlikely to be able to eradicate the virus by 2030, in part because a broadly effective and widely available vaccine was still years away, and also because many countries have banned research on chimpanzees, which was more powerful than studies on rodents.
Houghton, 69, is a professor of virology at Canada's University of Alberta. He told reporters the award validated his team's work on a hepatitis C vaccine, which is now in clinical trials.
While effective antiviral treatments are now available, a course can cost $30,000 in the United States.
"In well-resourced countries that have the political will to do it, we are seeing huge progress," said Graham Cooke, NIHR Professor of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College, London.
In poorer countries, he said, "there are lots of challenges to overcome, but I think it is a realistic ambition".
Rice said manufacturers were now attempting to lower the price, in part by granting production rights in poorer countries. "I would have been much happier had it been more rapid," he said.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Nobel Foundation has cancelled the banquet that traditionally forms the centrepiece of the award ceremonies in Stockholm in December, and will present medals and diplomas in a televised event instead.
(Writing by Douglas Busvine in Berlin; Additional reporting by Niklas Pollard, Johannes Hellstrom, Supantha Mukherjee, Anna Ringstrom and Daniel Trotta; Editing by William Maclean and Kevin Liffey)