Divisive French virologist and Nobel Prize winner dies aged 89

Professor Luc Montagnier is known for his part in discovering HIV, but has also been denounced for supporting unscientific theories and for opposing certain vaccines

Professor Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute, Paris, taken in the 1980s
Published Last updated

The divisive French virologist Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize in 2008 but has also been heavily criticised by his peers for propagating unproven and ‘dangerous’ theories, has died at the age of 89.

He died on Tuesday (February 8) at a hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine (Hauts-de-Seine), just west of Paris, the local mairie confirmed yesterday.

Prof Montagnier was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his part in discovering HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, in 1983.

However, since the beginning of the 2000s he has been subject to criticism for sharing and supporting unscientific and unproven theories.

For example, in a 2009 American documentary he defended the idea that a strong immune system can lead to someone being cured of HIV in a few weeks.

He also proposed to cure Pope John Paul II of Parkinson's disease using an extract of fermented papaya.

Last year, he claimed in an interview with CNews that the Covid outbreak was caused by “molecular biologists” inserting DNA sequences from HIV into a coronavirus, “probably” as part of their work to find a vaccine against AIDS”.

The study he based his claims on was not peer-reviewed, was heavily criticised by the scientific community, and was later taken down.

He has also been outspoken in his opposition to vaccines, both before and during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more:French Nobel prize winner: ‘Covid-19 was made in lab’

In 2017, around a hundred members of the French science and medicine academies criticised his views on the supposed risk of vaccines.

"We, academicians of science and/or academicians of medicine, cannot accept from one of our colleagues that he uses his Nobel Prize to disseminate, outside the field of his competence, dangerous messages relating to health, in defiance of the ethics that must preside over science and medicine," they wrote, as reported at the time by Ouest France.

A great loss

Despite the controversies, Mr Montagnier is still widely recognised for his contribution to discovering HIV.

France’s minister of higher education, research and innovation, Frédérique Vidal, tweeted yesterday (February 10):

“With the death of Luc Montagnier, France has lost an immense researcher, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008, co-discoverer of [HIV] with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi.

“We know what we collectively owe to his scientific work,” she wrote.

The dispute around who discovered HIV

Prof Montagnier was director of the Viral Oncology Unit at the Pasteur Institute in the early 1980s.

He is credited with discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) alongside another member of his team, Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who jointly received the 2008 Nobel Prize. Before their discovery, the cause of AIDS was not known.

Willy Rozenbaum, a clinician at the Hôpital Bichat in Paris, asked Prof Montagnier’s team in 1982 to examine a patient suffering from a mysterious syndrome. From the samples, they discovered HIV.

They published their work in the journal Science in 1983.

However, US scientist Robert Gallo published similar findings in the same issue of the journal.

This led to a public dispute between Prof Montagnier and Dr Gallo about who first discovered HIV and the cause of AIDS.

Dr Gallo eventually admitted in 1991 that he had used the same patient samples from the Pasteur Institute but at a later date than Prof Montagnier and his team.

In 2002, the two men eventually agreed that while Prof Montagnier and his team had discovered HIV, it was Dr Gallo who had first linked it to causing AIDS.

Related articles

French Nobel prize winner: ‘Covid-19 was made in lab’