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COVID-19 vaccine scientist Katalin Kariko was listed as Communist-era police informant

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By Orlando Crowcroft with Euronews' Hungarian Service
Katalin Kariko, whose work on mRNA technology was critical to developing the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, was recruited in 1978.
Katalin Kariko, whose work on mRNA technology was critical to developing the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, was recruited in 1978.   -   Copyright  Rosta Tibor/MTVA - Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelõ Alap
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A biochemist whose work was integral to the development of vaccines for COVID-19 has admitted that she was an asset for the security services during Hungary’s Communist era.

Katalin Kariko, whose work on mRNA technology was critical to developing the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, was recruited in 1978 when Hungary was under the Soviet-backed Communist regime of János Kádár.

Kariko, who has been tipped as a potential Nobel Prize winner, said she was blackmailed by Hungary’s feared State Security Service, which threatened to reveal her father’s role in the 1956 revolution against Communist rule, making her career in medical research impossible.

But Kariko told Hungarian media that though she was listed as an agent, she never actually informed on anyone during her time in Hungary or in the U.S., where she has lived since 1985.

“In the years that followed, I did not give any written report, I did not harm anyone. In order to continue my scientific activity and research, I had to leave,” she said in a statement.

Euronews has reached out to Kariko for comment.

Kariko’s role as a listed informant has been in the public domain since her name was listed in a book in 2017. But it was highlighted this weekend by a right-wing media outlet when she returned to Hungary to receive an honour for her work on COVID-19.

The director-general of the historical archives of the State Security Services, Gergő Bendegúz Cseh, said there was no reason to doubt Kariko’s claim that she didn’t ever inform on anyone after her recruitment, saying that her “work file” was empty.

Admission is 'extremely rare'

Krisztián Ungváry, a researcher into former state security documents, told Euronews that it was extremely rare for someone confronted about their role during the Communist era to admit what had happened rather than lying about the past.

He also said it was clear that Kariko was not active after her 1985 move to the U.S., quashing speculation that she could have been enlisted as a spy for Hungary while she was in America, because this would have been marked in her state security file.

Between 1945 and the collapse of Communism beginning in 1989, between 160,000 and 200,000 Hungarians are believed to have been recruited by the security services. By 1977, the year before Kariko was recruited, there were almost 7,000 active agents.

Even 32 years later, the role of the state security services remains contentious and controversial in Hungary.

This weekend Kariko was made an Honorary Citizen of Szeged, Hungary, where she started her university career, while a profile in the New York Times in April 2021 described Kariko as a hero in the fight against COVID-19.