Fries Prize for Improving Health Recipient, Dr. Harvey Alter, Wins Nobel Prize in Medicine

It is with honor and excitement that we extend our congratulations to Dr. Harvey Alter for being named a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in discovering the hepatitis C virus. Dr. Alter received the prize along with his collaborators Dr. Michael Houghton and Dr. Charles M. Rice. In 2015, the CDC Foundation presented Dr. Alter with the Fries Prize for Improving Health, an award that recognizes an individual who has made major accomplishments in health improvement, for his work on Hepatitis C.

Dr. Alter is a medical researcher at the National Institutes of Health. According to NIH, Dr. Alter’s research focused on patients that developed chronic hepatitis from an unknown agent during blood transfusions. He showed that blood from these hepatitis patients could transmit the disease to chimpanzees. The mysterious illness became known as “non-A, non-B” hepatitis. Dr. Houghton, now working at the University of Alberta in Canada, isolated the genetic sequence of the virus that was named Hepatitis C. While Dr. Rice, based at Rockefeller University in New York City, showed that Hepatitis C virus alone could cause hepatitis.

This is the second time a Fries Prize for Improving Health recipient also won a Nobel Prize in Medicine. The first was Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, who was also recognized for his work in hepatitis. Dr. Blumberg won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1976 and then received the Fries Prize for Improving Health in 2001.

Dr. James Fries, professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University, came up with the idea for the Fries Prize for Improving Health in a 1987 ascent of Nepal’s Makalu—one of the world’s highest peaks—when his party became trapped in a snowstorm and was unable to scale the mountain. Following that experience, Dr. Fries returned home and set about establishing a foundation to support a Nobel-like prize for health that now annually awards a $60,000 prize to an individual judged by an expert panel to have done the greatest good for the greatest number in the field of health.

The Fries Prize for Improving Health, which was first awarded in 1992, can be given to an educator, a scientist, a program inventor, an activist, a public figure, a private citizen, or any other person who has made a significant contribution to improvement of the public health. In 2016, the Fries Foundation provided an endowment to the CDC Foundation to manage and administer the Fries public health awards, which include the Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award in addition to The Fries Prize for Improving Health.

According to @NobelPrize, “For the first time in history, the Hepatitis C virus can now be cured. The 2020 Medicine Laureates’ discoveries revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.” Congratulations to Dr. Harvey Alter, and his collaborators Dr. Michael Houghton and Dr. Charles M. Rice, for this prestigious recognition and for their invaluable contribution to public health. Look for information on this year’s Fries Prize for Improving Health winner in the coming weeks, as the award presentation and lecture will occur on Monday, October 26 during the American Public Health Association (APHA) virtual annual meeting. Learn more about the Fries Prize for Improving Health and the Elizabeth Fries Health Education award.

Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.