French virologist Dr. Luc Montagnier, who was awarded a share of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology, passed away on February 8. The Prize, awarded for his 1983 discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), was richly deserved but was not without controversy. Without doubt, the identification of the virus was certainly a landmark event, but the discovery was disputed by American biomedical researcher Robert Gallo who claimed that he had detected the virus before Montagnier. This led to a long and acrimonious dispute that was finally settled with the intervention of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and French President Jacques Chirac.
The fight was not only about academic credit but also about money. Potential profits from commercial tests to detect the virus were deemed to be huge. Eventually, it was agreed that these profits would be divided between the American and French groups that had filed patents for the test kits. It was also agreed that Montagnier would be recognized as the discoverer of the HIV virus, while Gallo would get credit for demonstrating that the HIV virus causes AIDS. On receiving the Nobel Prize, Montagnier did express surprise that Gallo had not been included.
The battle between Montagnier and Gallo was documented in Randy Shilts’ 1987 book “And the Band Played On,” which was also made into a 1993 movie starring Alan Alda as Gallo and Patrick Bauchau as Montagnier. A number of famous personalities, including Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston and Ian McKellen made cameo appearances in the film to show their support in the fight against AIDS.
Montagnier did not die of what has been called Nobel Disease but he certainly seems to have been infected by it. Nobel disease, or Nobelitis, is the embracing of strange or scientifically unsound ideas by Nobel Prize winners after they have become famous for winning the Prize. Relatively few are afflicted with the condition but Dr. Montagnier appears to have been a victim. In his case, the scientifically unsound idea was his bizarre support of homeopathy.
In 2009, the year after he won the Nobel prize, Dr. Montagnier published a paper that smacked of the widely discredited experiment described by immunologist Jacques Benveniste in a 1988 paper in Nature. Benveniste suggested that water has some sort of memory, retaining a ghostly profile of a substance that had been dissolved in it even after that substance was no longer present. This, he intimated, lent credence to the concept of homeopathy, the bizarre idea that solutions diluted to the extent that they contain nothing can still have a physiological effect. Nonsense piled on nonsense. Even if the wacky notion of water having memory were true, it would say nothing about that water having a therapeutic effect.
In step with Benveniste, Montagnier in his curious paper, published in a journal of which he himself was Editor in Chief, claimed that he had detected electromagnetic signals in water that had previously held viral DNA even after the DNA had been filtered and the water repeatedly diluted. The signals were recorded by a microphone coil and sent by email to a group in Italy where it was transmitted to a sample of distilled water in a sealed metal tube. When placed in a PCR machine, this water, which contained nothing, was able to direct the synthesis of DNA that turned out to be identical to Montagnier’s original. Basically, this was a claim that DNA could be teleported. “Beam me up, Scottie!” The scientific establishment was stunned. Here was a Nobel Prize winner making a totally implausible claim. Needless to say, nobody has been able to duplicate the experiment.
Montagnier had other curious ideas. Autism was caused by an infection and could be treated by long-term antibiotic treatments. HIV infection would respond well to diet. And incongruously, this scientist who identified the HIV virus, a monumental achievement, went on to oppose childhood vaccinations. This prompted more than 100 members of the French academies of science and medicine to publish an open letter condemning him for spreading “dangerous health messages outside of his field of knowledge.”
When COVID-19 appeared, Montagnier told French TV viewers that vaccination was an “enormous mistake” and would promote the spread of new variants. It seems the SARS-CoV-2 virus exacerbates the symptoms of the Nobel Disease.