I’ve written about what I like to refer to as the “Nobel disease,” defined as the tendency of Nobel Laureates to turn into cranks. Whether Nobel Laureates turn into cranks at a higher rate than scientists in general or even the population in general is not known. While it is plausible that all the praise and their high stature might contribute to a higher degree of Dunning-Kruger effect when they wander out of their area of expertise, who knows if they do “go crank” more frequently than average. What is undeniable, however, is that when Nobel Laureates “go crank,” it’s far more damaging to science than when just a run-of-the-mill scientist goes rogue, because of stature Nobel Laureates enjoy. That’s why Luc Montagnier, who was a Nobel Prize in 2008 as co-discoverer of HIV as the cause of AIDS. Given how much damage French “brave maverick scientist” Didier Raoult has caused with his bad science and premature hyping of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for COVID-19 has done to public health, imagine how much damage Luc Montagnier could do if he decided to “go crank” over COVID-19. Well, I’ve learned that he just did, endorsing the conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was engineered in a laboratory. Fortunately, because Montagnier is French, and few accounts of his endorsement of the “engineered coronavirus” conspiracy theory exist in English. This is the interview in which he made these claims:
The video is in French. I include it for those of you who can understand French. Unfortunately, my French is sufficiently rusty that I do far better understanding written French than I do spoken French (which I have a hard time understanding unless it’s spoken slowly); so I must confess that I didn’t understand a lot of it. Fortunately, there are news reports that I can cite.
First, though, lets delve into a bit of background. Although there are quite a few other Nobel Laureates who have gone down the same sort of “Nobel disease” rabbit hole, such as James Watson, Kary Mullis, William Shockley, Louis Ignarro (who’s shilled for HerbaLife), Linus Pauling, and more. However, the biggest baddest case of Nobel Disease of all, to me, has to belong to Nobel Laureate Luc Luc Montagnier, who won his Nobel Prize. He’s not only embraced The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy), but he’s embraced a wide variety of autism quackery as well, including (of course) the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism, as well as pseudoscience claiming “DNA teleportation.” He’s even spoken at the autism quackfest known as AutismOne and appeared in Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED, after having started a pseudoscientific and unethical clinical trial of long term antibiotics to treat autism. Basically, Luc Montagnier has gone full antivax, having appeared with Henri Joyeux to promote the idea that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome.
This time around, he’s promoting the conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon engineered in a laboratory that escaped to cause the pandemic, and he does it on the most scientifically shaky basis. Let’s take a look:
We knew that the Chinese version of how the coronavirus emerged was increasingly under attack, but here’s a thesis that tells a completely different story about the Covid-19 pandemic, which is already responsible for more than 110,000 deaths worldwide. According to Professor Luc Montagnier, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 for “discovering” HIV as the cause of the AIDS epidemic together with François Barré-Sinoussi, the SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that was manipulated and accidentally released from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, in the last quarter of 2019. According to Professor Montagnier, this laboratory, known for its work on coronaviruses, tried to use one of these viruses as a vector for HIV in the search for an AIDS vaccine!
“With my colleague, bio-mathematician Jean-Claude Perez, we carefully analyzed the description of the genome of this RNA virus,” explains Luc Montagnier, interviewed by Dr Jean-François Lemoine for the daily podcast at Pourquoi Docteur, adding that others have already explored this avenue: Indian researchers have already tried to publish the results of the analyses that showed that this coronavirus genome contained sequences of another virus, … the HIV virus (AIDS virus), but they were forced to withdraw their findings as the pressure from the mainstream was too great.
No, they were forced to retract because their scientists pointed out the many glaring flaws in their methodology and how their conclusions were not justified by the data. In particular, the Indian investigators didn’t seem to realize that HIV sequences are common in naturally occurring coronaviruses; so finding them in SARS-CoV-2 does not mean that they were artificially inserted. I’ll explain more in a moment, but I can’t help but also mention that, wow, this conspiracy theory seems like ancient history already, even though the paper that originally sparked it by making this claim was published two and a half months ago, as was Montagnier’s paper claiming that SARS-CoV-2 was made in a lab.
Pray continue, Prof. Montagnier:
Faced with these assertions by a professor who is sometimes challenged following iconoclastic positions, in particular on vaccination, one might also think that these conclusions are due to chance and that the coronavirus examined could have been taken from a patient otherwise afflicted with HIV. “No, replies Luc Montagnier, “to insert a sequence of HIV into this genome, molecular tools are needed, this can only be done in the laboratory”.
According to the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine, the explanation is an “industrial accident” at the Wuhan laboratory. “The history of the fish market is a beautiful legend … The assumption is that this virus left the laboratory because it escaped its scientists, it is a work of apprentice-sorcerer!”, Estimates he promoting the thesis that the object of this work was the search for an AIDS vaccine.
It has already been conclusively demonstrated by multiple investigations that the SARS-CoV-2 nucleotide sequence betrays no signs of having been artificially engineered in a lab. More on that later, too. I’ll hand one thing to Montagnier. He does know how to lay down conspiracy theories with the best of them:
In any case, this thesis, defended by Professor Luc Montagnier, has a positive turn. According to him, the altered elements of this virus are eliminated as it spreads: “Nature does not accept any molecular tinkering, it will eliminate these unnatural changes and even if nothing is done, things will get better, but unfortunately after many deaths.” Luc Montagnier added that with the help of interfering waves, we could eliminate these sequences and as a result stop the pandemic.
This is enough to fuel heated debates! To the point that Professor Montagnier’s statements could also classify him in the category of “conspiracy theorists”: “Conspiracies, it’s the opposite camp, the one who hides the truth”, he replies without wanting to accuse anyone but hoping that the Chinese would recognize what he said happened in their laboratory. “Anyway, the truth always ends up coming out, it’s up to the Chinese government to take responsibility.”
Interfering waves can stop the pandemic by eliminating the HIV sequences in SARS-CoV-2? That’s some primo, grade A pseudoscience! But what does Montagnier mean by “interfering waves”? Around nine years ago, Montagnier proposed that there is evidence that DNA can transport electromagnetic imprints of itself to cells within the body which it has absolutely no contact with:
Luc Montagnier, who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2008 for his part in establishing that HIV causes AIDS, says he has evidence that DNA can send spooky electromagnetic imprints of itself into distant cells and fluids. If that wasn’t heretical enough, he also suggests that enzymes can mistake the ghostly imprints for real DNA, and faithfully copy them to produce the real thing. In effect this would amount to a kind of quantum teleportation of the DNA.
I’m guessing that these are the “interfering waves” to which Montagnier is referring. But how would such waves be generated artificially to target the HIV sequences in SARS-CoV-2? How would they be made specific enough to do this? Inquiring minds want to know! Longtime readers might recall that Montagnier also embraces homeopathy and portrayed his claimed observation of DNA “teleportation” as a potential mechanism for the “memory of water.” As for “nature not accepting any molecular tinkering,” that’s plain nonsense. If that were the case, genetically modified organisms would not be possible. Transgenic mice would not be possible. Who’d have thought that a Nobel Laureate would embrace a view that nature always somehow gets rid of the “artificial”?
Now, back to those HIV sequences. Here’s a the Indian paper to which Montagnier referred. Here’s a February commentary explaining why that paper is nonsense, correctly noting that every new human pathogen causing outbreaks (such as Ebola) leads to conspiracy theories that the pathogen was engineered in a laboratory, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different, other than in degree, given the influence of social media.
The money passage (noting that 2019-nCoV is what SARS-CoV-2 was called before it gained its current official name):
Current report conducted careful examination of the sequences of 2019-nCoV, other CoV viruses and HIV-1 as well as GenBank database. Our results demonstrated no evidence that the sequences of these four inserts are HIV-1 specific or the 2019-nCoV viruses obtain these insertions from HIV-1. First, the results of blast search of these motifs against GenBank shows that the top 100 identical or highly homologous hits are all from host genes of mammalian, insects, bacterial and others. There are only a few hits on coronaviruses, but none of them are HIV-1 related. Blast against viral sequence database also showed these insertion sequences widely exist in all kinds of viruses from bacteriophage, influenza, to giant eukaryotic viruses (Table 1). More hits were found for coronaviruses and a few also hit on HIV-1 sequences than the search against the entire database (Table 1). However, while the 100% match between the insertion 1 and 2 sequences and the HIV sequences were found in 19 entries, the matches between the insertion 3 and 4 sequences and HIV-1 sequences were rather poor (from 42% to 88%). Moreover, the insertion 4 sequence ambiguously hit multiple different genes (gag, pol and env) in the HIV-1 genome, suggesting that similarities (as low as 42%) between them are too low to be reliable. Search these four insertion sequences against HIV-1 Sequence Database (https://www.hiv.lanl.gov/components/sequence/HIV/search/search.html) yielded similar results. Sequences that completely match the insertion 3 and 4 sequences were not found in any HIV-1 sequences. This clearly shows that these insertioin sequences are widely present in living organisms including viruses, but not HIV-1 specific. All these regions in HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein are highly variable with many large insertions and deletions, indicating that they are not essential for biological functions of HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein. The detection of completely matched sequences of 1 and 2 insertions in only a few HIV-1 strains demonstrated that four insertions are very rare or not present among tens of thousands of natural HIV-1 sequences. This also explains why four insertion homolog sequences could only be independently found in different HIV-1 genomes . Because of their poor identities to and rareness in the HIV-1 sequences, HIV-1 could not be the source for those insertion sequences in the 2019-nCoV genome.
The authors further point out that “these insertions are present not only in 2019-nCoV viruses but also in three betaCoV sequences from bats: two (ZC45 and ZXC21) from Zhejiang deposited in GenBank in 2018 and RaTG13 from Yunnan obtained in 2013,” adding that “many other CoV viruses have similar insertions but with different sequences at the insertion 1 position,” and concluding that these “results clearly show that three out of four of these inserts naturally exist in three bat CoV viruses before 2019-nCoV was identified,” thus refuting ” the possibility that 2019-nCoV is generated through obtaining gene fragments from the HIV-1 genome.” Basically, looking for similarities between nucleotide sequences that short and viral genomes (or any genome) will frequently find a lot of similar sequences.
For a once-great virologist, Luc Montagnier sure doesn’t seem to know virology any more. Of course, back when he was in his prime, sequencing even a viral genome was a tedious, laborious process, and many of the databases of DNA sequences didn’t exist or were in their embryonic forms. I remember the difficulties even as late as the 1990s, when doing a sequence search against the BLAST database involved emailing a properly formatted DNA sequence to a specific email address for the BLAST server and waiting for the results to be emailed back. Perhaps Montagnier never kept up with the rapid advances in genomics since the 1980s. But what about Jean-Claude Perez, who is supposedly a bio-mathematician? Whoa? Look at what came up on a Google search for him:
Jean-Claude Perez, PhD, is French interdisciplinary scientist born on June 26, 1947 in Bassens, Gironde near Bordeaux (France). An engineer and French scholar from Bordeaux university. Perez worked principally with IBM in both the areas of Biomathematics and Artificial Intelligence (the first time, showing evidence of high level self-organization in cellular automata networks and the second time creating neural networks with Fractal Chaos), his holographic-like memory system and novelty detector). Then, in 1990, Jean-claude Perez published strong links between the world of fractals and numbers of the Fibonacci sequence which are based on the Golden ratio. In this last area, with the “DNA supracode”, he proved that DNA coding for genes is structured by proportions related to Fibonacci numbers  . He verified this discovery in the field of the HIV genome by partnerships with Professor Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of the HIV virus. He has worked for 20 years in the fields of whole genome numerical analysis and numerical decoding of genes as coding or non-coding DNA sequences (as demonstrated particularly by the last publications:  ).
Particularly, in “Interdisciplinary Science” September 2010 issue, J.C. Perez published a peer-reviewed paper proving that the whole human genome codon populations are managed by a “DRAGON fractal paper folding curve” fine-tuned around the “Golden ratio”. Particularly, this main paper entitled “Codon populations in single-stranded whole human genome DNA are fractal and fine-tuned by the Golden Ratio 1.618.” shows that the Universal Genetic Code Table not only maps codons to amino acids, but serves as a global checksum matrix at the whole genome and fine-tuned by the Golden Ratio 1.618.” shows that the Universal Genetic Code Table not only maps codons to amino acids, but serves as a global checksum matrix at the whole genome macro-structural scale.
No wonder “intelligent design” creationists love him! Basically, Perez is a crank who believes that DNA is somehow organized according to mathematics and musical notes. This all explains a lot about how a “bio-mathematician” like Perez could make such a rookie mistake analyzing virus sequences. In any event, I can’t help but think that, if the HIV-like sequences in SARS-CoV-2 really were the result of an attempt to make a vaccine against HIV, I’d have to characterize it as the most incompetent attempt ever, given that somehow HIV and coronavirus got mixed in together! No, Luc Montagnier is spouting nonsense. The reported finding of sequence similarities are spurious:
Montagnier is also spouting nonsense in general, as there is now very good evidence showing that SARS-CoV-2 is not bioengineered, that it arose naturally, to the point that scientists are getting tired of having to explain why SARS-CoV-2 couldn’t have been made in a lab.
Truly, of all the Nobel Laureates suffering from Nobel Disease, Luc Montagnier suffers from most severe case by far. Other Nobel Disease sufferers tend to restrict their crankery to one or a handful of areas (e.g., Linus Pauling and vitamin C, Louis Ignarro and arginine supplements, etc.), but Montagnier is truly a crank for all topics and seasons.