BETHESDA, Maryland—Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian, M.D., a pioneering virologist at the National Institutes of Health who discovered norovirus and led a decades-long effort that resulted in the first licensed rotavirus vaccine, died on Feb. 24. He was 83 years old. Dr. Kapikian was the former chief of the epidemiology section of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a position he held for 45 years.
“Al Kapikian was a giant in the field of virology,” said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “His seminal basic and clinical research contributions to the study of viruses and to vaccine development have had an enormous global impact. Importantly, he was a warm-hearted, beloved, and widely respected human being. His many friends at NIAID and NIH mourn the loss of their esteemed colleague.”
Dr. Kapikian often was called the father of human gastroenteritis virus research for his work on improving the understanding and prevention of viral diseases that affect the gastrointestinal tract. In 1972, he identified the first norovirus, initially called Norwalk virus. Noroviruses are now recognized as a major cause of epidemic diarrhea in adults worldwide. In 1973, Dr. Kapikian and his colleagues identified the hepatitis A virus. He also was the first scientist in the United States to detect human rotavirus, which had been discovered by others in Australia. He dedicated himself to studying this leading cause of severe diarrhea in children, which accounts for more than 400,000 deaths annually, mostly in developing countries.
“Al was my hero,” said Kathryn C. Zoon, Ph.D., director of the NIAID Division of Intramural Research. “He was a modest man who made many remarkable discoveries in virology and saved many lives through his vaccine development efforts. He will be missed by his NIAID family.”
Dr. Kapikian and his research group defined the mode of transmission of rotavirus, identified the viral proteins critical for triggering an immune response, and formulated a vaccine that targeted several important rotavirus strains. These efforts ultimately led to the development, testing and approval by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 of the first rotavirus vaccine. Subsequently, Dr. Kapikian headed the development of second-generation rotavirus vaccines that have been licensed by pharmaceutical companies in Brazil, China, and India. He also contributed to ongoing efforts to improve rotavirus vaccines and expand their use in the developing world.
He received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1956 and joined NIAID in 1957. His numerous accomplishments earned him the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal, the Maurice Hilleman/Merck Award of the American Society for Microbiology and the Children’s Vaccine Initiative Pasteur Award, among many other honors.
“Al was a great scientist who worked as hard as humanly possible on the development of an attenuated virus vaccine for rotavirus,” said Brian R. Murphy, M.D., former co-chief of the NIAID Laboratory of Infectious Diseases. “Most importantly, he was a great colleague to those of us lucky enough to have worked with him. He was thoughtful, gentle, kind, enthusiastic, encouraging and extremely intelligent. He was a sports enthusiast, a master of the knuckleball and a great father, with a loving wife, sons and grandchildren.”