Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice together with Briton Michael Houghton have won the 2020 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

The three were honoured for their "decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world", the Nobel jury said.

Hepatitis C virus causes cirrhosis and liver cancer and was discovered in 1989.

The World Health Organization estimates there to be around 70 million Hepatitis C infections globally, causing around 400,000 deaths each year.

Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have "essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health", the Nobel committee said.

Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at Hepatitis C.

"For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population," the jury said.

Prior to the trio's work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had seen critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained.

"The discovery of Hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives," the jury said.

Harvey Alter was credited for his pioneering work studying the occurrence of hepatitis in patients who had received blood transfusions, determining that their illness was neither Hepatitis A or B.

Michael Houghton built on Mr Alter's work to isolate the genetic sequence of the new virus.

Charles Rice subsequently completed the puzzle by using genetic engineering to prove that it was the new strain alone - Hepatitis C - that was causing patients to get sick.

The trio will share the Nobel prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about €950,000).

They would normally receive their prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

But the in-person ceremony has been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.