Nobel prize season returns under pandemic spotlight

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Like last year, Nobel laureates will receive their awards in their home countries (AFP/Peter Kneffel)
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Covid-19 vaccine pioneers, media watchdogs, climate activists and Belarus opposition leaders are just some of those tipped for Nobel glory when the latest prize recipients are announced from Monday against the background of the pandemic.

Launched 120 years ago, the medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace awards created by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, as well as the more recent economics prize, will be given out in Stockholm and Oslo from October 4-11.

While the list of contenders is a closely guarded secret, Nobel experts say research on messenger RNA (mRNA), which forms the basis of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, is a hot favourite for the medicine or chemistry prizes.

"It would be a mistake if the Nobel Committee did not give the prize to mRNA vaccine technology," Swedish science journalist Ulrika Bjorksten told AFP.

She cited as possible laureates Katalin Kariko of Hungary and Drew Weissman of the United States, whose pioneering research led directly to the first mRNA vaccines.

These have been injected in over a billion people worldwide in a race to ease a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 4.7 million people.

Kariko and Weissman have already received several accolades, including the Lasker Prize in the US, often seen as a precursor to the Nobel.

Other fields that could be honoured include cell communication, the workings of the immune system, the discovery of the breast cancer gene, epigenetics and antibiotic resistance.

The medicine prize opens the Nobel season on Monday, followed by the awards for physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and peace on Friday.

The economics prize wraps up the Nobel season on October 11.

- Peace prize for the climate? -

Among those generating buzz for the peace prize -- the only one to be given in Oslo -- are media watchdogs, Belarusian opposition leaders and climate campaigners, such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

The image of the prestigious award has been hit hard over the past years as one of its previous laureates, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, became embroiled in a war.

Another, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, was accused of defending the massacre of members of the Rohingya minority.

Last year, the World Food Programme won.

There is speculation that climate activists are next in line as the world experiences a torrent of deadly weather disasters, from asphalt-melting heatwaves to flash floods and untameable wildfires.

"It is the most important issue at the moment," said Nobel historian Asle Sveen.

Other experts believe the time may be right for organisations fighting for freedom of information and the rights of journalists, such as Reporters Without Borders or the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Non-violent opposition of Belarus's autocratic regime, spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is also seen as a worthy winner.

Although earlier deemed favourites, the World Health Organization and the Covax vaccine-sharing scheme have been hampered by the slow distribution of jabs to poor countries.

- 'Discover a genius' -

For the literature prize, to be announced on Thursday, punters suggested the Swedish Academy may look further afield after honouring several European and North American laureates.

"I do believe they really want to discover a genius from a previously neglected area," said Jonas Thente, literary critic at Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

He suggested "someone with a primary interest in cross-cultural experiences", such as 44-year-old Nigeria-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

"She is probably too young, but she would fit the profile."

Some names have been bandied about in Stockholm's literary circles for years -- Hungary's Peter Nadas, Canada's Margaret Atwood, Syrian poet Adonis and Somali author Nuruddin Farah.

Some newer names to emerge include India's Vikram Seth, China's Liao Yiwu and Mozambican writer Mia Couto.

Last year, the honour went to American poet Louise Gluck.

While the names of the Nobel laureates are kept secret until the last minute, the Nobel Foundation has already announced that the glittering prize ceremony and banquet held in Stockholm in December for the science and literature laureates will not happen this year due to the pandemic.

Like last year, laureates will receive their awards in their home countries.

A decision has yet to be made about the peace prize ceremony held in Oslo.

This year's winners take home 10 million Swedish kronor (just under one million euros, $1.13 million), to be shared if more than one person is honoured in a discipline.

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