Luc Montagnier achieved scientific notoriety and won a Nobel Prize for co-discovering HIV. His work has led to the development of diagnostic tests and treatments that have saved countless lives. He spent his final years dismantling this hard-earned reputation by espousing fringe theories and opposing vaccination. His baseless claims about COVID-19 — that vaccines cause dangerous variants to emerge, or that the virus was engineered — have been weaponized by disinformation campaigns. He died on February 8 at the age of 89.
Montagnier was born on August 18, 1932 in Chabris, France. World War II scarred her childhood with hunger and uncertainty, but her interest in science blossomed early on. He got into the business that spawned countless researchers: tinkering with explosive compounds in a home lab. Later, he installed an accelerated camera on a microscope and studied the response of chloroplasts to light. He was inspired to become a virologist after learning of the discovery in 1957 that tobacco mosaic virus RNA could transmit infection.
Montagnier worked in several laboratories before landing at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1972, developing his expertise in virology along the way. He specialized in retroviruses, RNA viruses capable of inserting a DNA copy of their genetic material into the genome of their host. This, along with advances in culturing immune cells and his use of reagents that block antiviral proteins called interferons to reawaken dormant retroviruses in the cells, proved useful in 1983. A colleague sent him tissue from lymph nodes taken from a French fashion designer believed to be in the early stages of AIDS.
By the time people were diagnosed with AIDS, they were often already living with a variety of infections, cancers and other disorders that made it difficult to find the source of the disease. Researchers speculated wildly: some blamed fungus or chemical exposure. Others have seen that a class of immune cells called CD4+ T cells were depleted in people with AIDS and wondered if the body’s immune system was targeting them. Montagnier was reminded of a known retrovirus that could infect CD4+ T-lymphocytes, and it was transmitted through blood and sexual activity.
In the Montagnier virology unit at the Institut Pasteur, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi isolated a new retrovirus from lymph node biopsy; the team called it lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV; F. Barre-Sinoussi et al. Science 220, 868–871; 1983). When, in September 1983, Montagnier presented the results in a small, late-night session of a scientific meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, his audience was skeptical. “This situation is not uncommon in science, as new discoveries are often controversial,” he wrote in his biography of the Nobel Prize.
Shortly after this presentation, a team led by virologist Robert Gallo, then at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, helped solidify the link between AIDS and the virus that Montagnier’s team had found ( officially named HIV in 1986). Gallo had previously discovered other retroviruses that infect human cells, called human T-lymphotropic viruses (HTLV)-I and HTLV-II. In 1984, his team isolated a retrovirus from samples taken from people with AIDS, and he called it HTLV-III. But it turned out to be identical to LAV, samples of which Montagnier had provided to his laboratory.
The two teams then waged an epic patent war over who should own the intellectual property rights to a diagnostic test based on the virus. Finally, in 1987, peace was brokered by US President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who agreed to share test royalties between the two countries and create an international fund for research and education on AIDS.
Given this history, many were surprised when, in 2008, Gallo was not awarded a share of the Nobel Prize. Instead, Montagnier shared the physiology or medicine prize with Barré-Sinoussi; virologist Harald zur Hausen was also honored, for his unrelated discovery that human papillomaviruses are linked to cervical cancer.
After the discovery of HIV, Montagnier’s work took a shocking turn. He has published a series of controversial papers claiming that highly diluted DNA from certain pathogens emits electromagnetic waves. He invoked the debunked notion of “water memory”, arguing that water is modified by DNA in a way that retains certain properties of the molecules even when they have been greatly diluted. (The concept of water memory was championed by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste in a 1988 study Nature document that later turned out not to be reproducible (J. Maddox et al. Nature 334, 287–290; 1988)). At the age of 78, Montagnier left France to head a research institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, to study the issue.
Over time, Montagnier seemed to not only be comfortable with controversy, but also court it. He embraced homeopathy and pseudoscientific ideas about autism. “It has reached a stage where no researcher has been able to provide comments or explanations on its late evolution,” explains Bernard Meunier, former president of the French Academy of Sciences. Others were more direct: “Luc Montagnier lost it”, writes Science columnist and chemist Derek Lowe in 2012.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Nobel Laureate de Montagnier lent weight to his damaging views that the COVID-19 vaccine could be harmful. At the end of his life, the image of his face was circulating on social media in anti-vaccination memes. Hard to believe he was once featured on commemorative postage stamps honoring his contributions to public health.
The author declares no competing interests.