In 2010, I coined the term “Nobel disease” to describe Nobel laureates who in their later years succumbed to pseudoscience, quackery, bad science, and even conspiracy theories. (At least, I think I coined the term; it’s possible that someone else did before me and I just used it enough that it became associated with me.) Although I mentioned other famous Nobel laureates who descended into nonsense years after winning their Nobels, such as Louis Ignarro (who became a pitchman for HerbaLife), Linus Pauling (who peddled quackery touting vitamin C as a cure-all for the common cold and cancer), and the like, my prime example was Luc Montagnier, who received the Nobel Prize as co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and, beginning in the late 2000s—and likely earlier—started promoting quackery such as homeopathy, antivaccine pseudoscience, and, most recently COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Even more recently than Montagnier’s embrace of the “lab leak” conspiracy theory for the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has come a claim that’s been bubbling up in the COVID-19 conspiracy underground that COVID-19 vaccines cause AIDS, and at the heart of it appears to be—you guessed it—Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier. I had been meaning to address the claim, mainly because readers were asking me about it, when I started seeing reports popping up on social media that Luc Montagnier had died. At first, the reports were all in French and were unconfirmed, but then yesterday mainstream news outlets like the New York Times were reporting that Montagnier had died:
Luc Montagnier, a French virologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering the virus that causes AIDS, died on Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He was 89.
The town hall in Neuilly confirmed that a death certificate for Dr. Montagnier had been filed there.
For all the glory that Dr. Montagnier earned in helping to discover the virus, today known as H.I.V., in later years he distanced himself from colleagues by dabbling in maverick experiments that challenged the basic tenets of science. Most recently he was an outspoken opponent of coronavirus vaccines.
I love how the NYT and other mainstream outlets understate the magnitude of the crankery of those suffering from the Nobel disease, like Luc Montagnier. “Maverick experiments that challenged the basic tenets of science”? I suppose you could call his experiments claiming support for DNA teleportation and homeopathy as “maverick experiments that challenged the basic tenets of science,” but only if you define “experiments” very, very loosely.
What do I mean? Let’s look at one example by taking a trip back in time to 2010 again. At that time, Luc Montagnier, already in the throes of Nobel disease, teamed up with autism quacks to put together a pseudoscientific and unethical clinical trial. The trial was sponsored by the Autism Treatment Trust (ATT) and the Autism Research Institute (ARI), both institutions that are–shall we say?–not exactly known for their scientific rigor. Indeed, DAN!— which, as you might recall, stood for “Defeat Autism Now!”—consisted of a large number of practitioners offering all manner of quackery under the rubric of “autism biomed.” These doctors were listed on the registry of the antivaccine autism biomed group known as “Autism Research Institute,”an organization founded by Dr. Bernard Rimland in 1967 and more recently rebranded as Autism.com. DAN! physicians generally became DAN! physicians by undergoing training through the ARI, which held yearly DAN! conferences to discuss the latest autism biomed quackery. (Interestingly enough, in either an apparent attempt to become more “legitimate” or in response to lawsuits against DAN! doctors, ARI stopped maintaining its DAN! registry at the end of 2011.) Back in the late 1990s through much of the first decade of the 21st century, though, if you wanted to find an autism biomed quack, the DAN! list was the first list to check.
With that background in mind, let’s return to the trial, which I’ve mentioned before dating back years. Montagnier teamed up with a Dr. Corinne Skorupka, who was a DAN! practitioner from France, and Dr. Lorene Amet, who was described as a neuroscientist but was a PhD and not an MD (i.e., not a clinician). A description of this study by these quacks and Montagnier, oddly enough, can no longer be found on the Autism Trust website, but, thanks to the almighty Wayback Machine at Archive.org, still exists under the title Project: Cold Bacterial Infections in Autism/ Professor Montagnier, Dr. Skorupka and Dr Amet. Here’s how it was described:
We are finally in a position to run some very exciting investigations/interventions with the support of Professor Montagnier, Nobel Prize winner for Medicine (for the discovery of HIV) and Dr. C. Skorupka a DAN! practitioner from Paris and long time friend. The project proposes to look at potential bacterial and viral chronic infections in autism. Prof Montagnier is of the view that some abnormalities in autism as well as in a whole range of neurological conditions, such as chronic fatigue and multiple sclerosis may be caused by potential infective agents. These would be difficult to the immune system to track down and would affect cell function thereby contributing to the development of the pathologies. He has developed a new technique that detects, by resonance, the genetic material of these potential infective agents. Additionally, using a very sensitive PCR assay, he can screen for a range of gram positive and gram negative bacteria as well as mycoplasma and borrelia (Lyme disease). He can also look at viruses (PRC assays under development). We are not alone in believing that this approach can help develop our understanding of the causes of autism and enable it to be treated more effectively. The proposed treatment combines a succession of antibiotics with basic biomedical supplements and probiotics. These antibiotics block cell division rather than kill bacteria, thereby avoiding potential side effects. Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no funding available to cover the costs of this project, but we are hoping to use the data collected to help us obtain funding for future research.
We offer your child the opportunity to be part of this project and to access to the Montagnier Infection Screen protocol. There will be medical follow up from Dr. Skorupka. The details of the project are outlined below. The total cost per child is likely to be around £1800, spread over a six-month period (details below). The antibiotic treatment is not included and may cost some £30- £60 a month, depending of the particular antibiotic selected. Every two months each child’s progress will be reviewed by Dr. Skorupka and Dr. Amet at ATT with interim progress reviews carried out by phone.
As I noted at the time, whenever you see an “investigator” charge patients to take part in an experimental protocol, be very very wary. Be very, very afraid. In general, with very few exceptions, reputable medical researchers do not charge patients to undergo experimental protocols; their studies are funded with grants from the government, private foundations, or pharmaceutical companies. As for the study itself, it was pure pseudoscience that proposed to unethically treat autistic children with long term antibiotics, à la chronic Lyme disease, the hypothesis being that infectious agents had something to do with their symptoms:
- Investigate the possibility that some cases of autism are associated with a range of bacterial infections, based on laboratory testing and clinical examination conducted by Dr. C. Skorupka in Edinburgh.
- Assess the ASD children for the presence of nanobacteria following Prof Luc Montagnier’s protocol of investigations. The protocol would require a blood draw conducted at the clinic with the help of our nurse. The blood normally has to be centrifugated immediately and the supernatant extracted, then frozen to -80C and shipped on carboice to France.
- Evaluate the efficacy of antibiotic intervention as well as behavioural evaluations (ATEC and ADOS). This would involve meeting with Dr Skopurpka and Dr. Amet every 2 months and reviewing progress over the phone in the interim month.
And here’s what parents would get for their money:
- A scan using Montagnier’s new “resonance” screening system for bacterial and virological material.
- A “very sensitive PCR assay”
- A progress review by Dr Skorupka and Dr Amet every two month’s, plus interim phone reviews.
- A blood test at the start of the treatment, and after 6 months of treatment.
- Behavioral evaluations at the start, and after 6 months of treatment.
As was noted at the time by autism advocates, there was no evidence of the study’s having undergone any ethical review in the UK, even though the study involved blood draws and antibiotic treatment in a vulnerable group, autistic children. I asked at the time…a lot. How was this study unethical? First, it charged the patient’s family for an experimental protocol. More importantly, it tested a hypothesis that was implausible from a biological standpoint given that there were no convincing preclinical data that support the idea that bacterial or viral infections either cause or contribute to autism. Based on an unsupported hypothesis that bacterial infections cause autism, Montagnier planned on subjecting autistic children to blood draws and treatment with antibiotics. The former could cause unnecessary pain and suffering, and the latter had the potential to cause the complications that can occur due to long term antibiotic use over several months. These include antibiotic-induced diarrhea and even C. difficile colitis, as well as a variety of other problems that can be caused when normal bacterial flora are killed off with antibiotics. Since there was no reason to suspect that these children had any sort of clinical infection that required treatment, giving them antibiotics for several months was all risk, no potential benefit.
Another blogger noted:
Luc Montagnier’s eccentricities have led him to a situation where vulnerable people will be exploited and the possibility that criminal acts will be committed.
This is the inevitable end point of quackery. Staunch believers in unorthodox medical treatments and theories inevitably run foul of acceptable ethics, whether it’s homeopaths in Tanzaniaor Nobel Prize winners in Paris. It doesn’t matter how respectable the person or how prestigious their prize, quackery corrupts the mind and corrodes the reputation. Their belief in the fundamental correctness of their thinking eventually leads them to actions where the norms of ethics and the rule of law are secondary considerations or no consideration at all. This is why quackery should be challenged and those who associate with it discouraged.
I couldn’t have put it better myself! No wonder Autism Treatment Trust memory-holed the whole thing! Since Montagnier is now dead, I wondered, not having checked before, if anything ever came of this clinical trial. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t, given that it was obviously just more autism biomed grift.
Let’s come back to the claim, though, that COVID-19 vaccines cause AIDS. You might remember that when Montagnier first started falling for COVID-19 conspiracy theories early in the pandemic, the first time around he claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, long the focus of lab leak conspiracy theories ranging from the utterly bonkers claim that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered or even a bioweapon that escaped to the somewhat less implausible claim that SARS-CoV-2 was a naturally occurring coronavirus stored there that escaped, had been using HIV as part of a coronavirus vaccine (translated):
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.
As I pointed out at the time, short HIV sequences are common in naturally occurring coronaviruses; so finding them in SARS-CoV-2 did not mean that they must have been artificially inserted. I also noted that the Indian paper to which Montagnier referred was nonsense, as described in February 2020 in a commentary explaining why that paper was nonsense and noting that every new human pathogen causing outbreaks (such as Ebola) leads to conspiracy theories that the pathogen was engineered in a laboratory. Also remember that this was many months before there was a COVID-19 vaccine available, which is no doubt why the vaccine wasn’t mentioned.
Unsurprisingly, given his history, after the vaccine had been available for a while, Montagnier went full antivax, consistent with his antivaccine rhetoric in 2016 claiming that vaccines were responsible for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), his appearance in the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary VAXXED, and his regular appearances at the antivaccine autism quackfest known as Autism One back in the day, for instance, when he echoed a favorite antivax claim that COVID-19 vaccines will cause new variants of the virus that will kill us all (false), a claim on which Geert Vanden Bossche made his antivaccine name (and continues to tout) for and one that is basically the same claim that Andrew Wakefield had made about measles vaccines before the pandemic. Then there was the Wall Street Journal op-ed he co-authored a month ago in which he called President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate “irrational, legally indefensible and contrary to the public interest for the government to mandate vaccines absent any evidence that the vaccines are effective in stopping the spread of the pathogen.”
You get the idea.
So what about HIV and COVID-19? Here’s an example of the nonsense being promoted by Montagnier and his followers:
That was from eight months ago, but for some reason this video and other publications in which Montagnier was cited as having shown that there were HIV sequences in the spike protein used as the antigen in COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccines started bubbling up a week or so ago and, since news of his death broke, have shown up even more:
And then, this meme:
Antivaxxers even coined a term, VAIDS, for “vaccine-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”:
I don’t know why these memes started bubbling up several days ago. From what I’ve been able to gather, Montagnier had been hospitalized for several days before his death on Tuesday. Perhaps some knew and that’s why they started resurrecting all these memes and false claims. Who knows? As far as I can tell, there’s nothing new here. It’s the same old nonsense from Montagnier dating back to early in the pandemic, when he used the presence of sequences looking like gp120 sequences from HIV-1 in the spike protein to claim that these sequences had been inserted into a coronavirus in an attempt to make a vaccine against SARS, going on to claim that these sequences were evidence that SARS-CoV-2 had been engineered.
Blish explained the issue with the withdrawn paper’s author’s interpretation: “the authors did not include bat coronaviruses, including the bat strain that bears the strongest resemblance to SARS-CoV-2.” ( here )
Blish referred to another paper here co-authored by virus expert Feng Gao ( here ) which concluded that the highlighted patterns in the withdrawn report are not HIV-specific. According to Gao’s paper, the motifs were also found in at least “100 identical or highly homologous” sequences in “host genes of mammalian, insects, bacterial and others” and also in “all kinds of viruses from bacteriophage, influenza, to giant eukaryotic.”
Coincidentally, experts noted that in addition to SARS-CoV-2 and HIV, the DNA protein sequences mentioned in the withdrawn study “are found in many different organisms, including the ones that cause cryptosporidiosis and malaria”. Further evaluation shows that “these proteins are not unique to coronaviruses and are common source of viral biology in a huge number of ailments caused by a variety of actors”.
Fact checker Health Feedback addressed the withdrawn report here and found that “the sequences analyzed by the study authors were so short that it is easy to find similarities to a wide variety of organisms”.
Note the date: Late January 2020. This was before COVID-19 even became reached the stage of a pandemic. This claim that the gp120 sequences in the novel coronavirus meant that it must have been engineered was one of the earliest conspiracy theories about the virus that I encountered. Again, these gp120 “HIV sequences” are not specific to HIV and do not indicate that SARs-CoV-2 must have been engineered. Even so, in retrospect it makes perfect sense that, once there was a vaccine using the spike protein as the antigen that conspiracy theorists like Montagnier and his followers would then pivot to the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccine can give you AIDS because, you know, there are those gp120 sequences. Never mind that COVID-19 and AIDS are very different diseases caused by very different viruses and that, even if you accept the claim that there are “HIV sequences” in the spike protein, there’s no way that SARS-CoV-2 could cause AIDS, and there’s really no way the vaccine can cause AIDS or “VAIDS.”
There are, of course, other another variants of this claimed linkage between COVID-19 vaccines and AIDS floating around. One is based on an observation that adenovirus infections might potentially make people more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, which brought up concerns about adenovirus-based COVID-19 vaccines as they were being developed, even though the specific adenovirus strains used lacked certain genes that provoked immune responses to the virus. Of course, neither Montagnier nor any of the other cranks seems to be restricting their fear mongering about “VAIDS” to just adenovirus-based COVID-19 vaccines but, rather, are focusing on the spike protein as “containing HIV,” a nonsensical claim. Another variant of “VAIDS” is the claim that the COVID-19 vaccine itself causes an “AIDS-like” immunodeficiency, which is false. Finally, there have been rare observations of false-positive HIV tests after COVID-19, and one COVID-19 vaccine was abandoned because it produced false-positive HIV tests. However, a false-positive HIV test is not HIV, and none of these patients actually had HIV or AIDS, even if current COVID-19 vaccines could cause a false-positive HIV test. (They don’t.)
This particular conspiracy theory, that the “gp120 sequences” in the spike protein mean that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a laboratory and that COVID-19 vaccines can give you AIDS or “VAIDS” is an unfortunately fascinating and instructive example of how a conspiracy theory can be created by sloppy science and then continue grow, metastasize, and create “variants,” if you will, for over two years and counting now. It just goes to show how conspiracy theories never die; they just evolve with circumstances. Sometimes, in fact, they don’t even really evolve much, but rather just keep resurfacing.
Worse, such a conspiracy theory becomes so much more credible-seeming when a Nobel laureate suffering from the Nobel disease like Luc Montagnier embraces it. This goes doubly when that Nobel laureate is someone who really should know better, given that he was a virologist whose Nobel prize was for discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS. Montagnier either knew, or should have known, that the “gp120 sequences” found in the spike protein in that study from January 2020 were common motifs in the proteins made in many more infectious organisms than just HIV and that the sequences were so short that they would be expected to be common based on random chance alone. If he knew, he was a liar. If he didn’t know, it’s just one more indication that the Nobel disease can truly trump one’s scientific knowledge. Whatever the case for Montagnier, unfortunately, his succumbing to the Nobel disease many years ago is now his legacy, far more than any scientific discoveries he might have made to warrant being awarded the Nobel Prize. Conspiracism is a hell of a drug.