New Delhi: You are a French virologist, who co-discovered the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in 1983 and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008. Then, in the midst of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, you start making headlines on Indian WhatsApp, for apparently saying “there is no chance of survival for people who have received any form of the (Covid) vaccine”.
This is not a thought experiment; it’s the true story of Luc Montagnier who, in recent years, has taken a decisive turn away from the fabled ‘scientific temper’ and grabbed headlines for promoting baseless claims about vaccination, homoeopathy and most recently, Covid-19.
He didn’t actually say what the WhatsApp message claims he did; the fake forwarded message has been debunked by many. But the 88-year-old Montagnier has made several unverified assertions since the pandemic hit, and even before that.
In April last year, when little was known about the novel coronavirus, Montagnier had claimed in an interview to a French news channel that the “presence of elements of HIV in the genome of the coronavirus and even elements of the ‘germ of malaria’ are highly suspect”, alleging that this was the result of trying to formulate a vaccine against AIDS.
Earlier, he supported controversial theories like ‘DNA emits electro-magnetic waves’, and tried to give credibility to anti-vaxxers. A year after winning the Nobel Prize, he claimed that a “good immune system” is enough to protect one from AIDS, and also supported a discredited theory of water having memory — the basis of homoeopathy.
In 2017, Montagnier was even at the receiving end of the scientific community’s ire, when he condemned the French government for making certain vaccines mandatory, suggesting this is “poisoning the next generation little by little”.
Following this, 106 scientists wrote an open letter to him, saying: “We, academics of medicine, cannot accept that one of our peers is using his Nobel prize [status] to spread dangerous health messages outside of his field of knowledge.”
Montagnier was born on 18 August 1932 in the French commune of Chabris. He earned a degree in science in 1953 and medicine in 1960 at the universities of Poitiers and Paris, and joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1972 as a research scientist. It is here that he discovered HIV with fellow scientist Francoise Barré-Sinoussi in 1983.
They eventually got the Nobel for this discovery in 2008, but Montagnier began to lose credibility around that time — his grant applications began to be rejected, leaving him with no money to pursue his work.
In a 2010 interview to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he claimed he was leaving Europe for China to “escape the intellectual terror” and to study electromagnetic waves which he believes are emitted by “highly diluted DNA of various pathogens”.
“I’m no longer allowed to work at a public institute (in France). I have applied for funding from other sources, but I have been turned down,” he said.
The year before, Montagnier had published two controversial studies, one of which claimed “water can carry information via an electromagnetic imprint from DNA and other molecules”. The study was published in a journal whose editorial board he is on. Two decades before Montagnier’s study, another French scientist Jacques Benveniste had written “that water can retain ‘memories’ of compounds even when diluted at a very high level”.
Montagnier’s paper left Swiss immunologist Alain de Weck “perplexed”, while Andy Lewis — who hosts the blog The Quackometer — said in an email to ScienceInsider: “This is classic pathological science — dredging around in the noise of irreproducible experiments by practitioners whose expertise is not in these fields in order to support hypotheses that fly in the face of well-established scientific principles.”
In an address to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany in 2010, Montagnier expressed indirect support for homoeopathy.
“I can’t say that homoeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions (used in homoeopathy) are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules,” he was quoted as saying by The Huffington Post (now HuffPost).
His current whereabouts could not be verified independently; there’s little reliable information about him to be found on the internet.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)