Luc Montagnier during the TV interview. Photo: YouTube.
The 2008 Nobel Laureate for physiology or medicine from France, Luc Antoine Montagnier, caught the media’s attention when he recently endorsed a COVID-19 conspiracy theory – that the virus is human-made. His proclamation was subsequently magnified by various news outlets, including many in India (e.g., The Week, The Hindu Businessline, and Times of India).
Montagnier argued during a TV interview with a French TV channel that elements of the HIV-1 retrovirus, which he co-discovered in 1983, can be found in the genome of the new coronavirus. He also said elements of the “malaria germ” – the parasite Plasmodium falciparum – can also be seen in the virus’s genome.
His full quote: “We were not the first since a group of Indian researchers tried to publish a study which showed that the complete genome of this coronavirus [has] sequences of another virus, which is HIV.”
In a separate podcast episode with a different outlet, Montagnier further said the virus had escaped in an “industrial accident” from the Wuhan city laboratory when Chinese scientists were attempting to develop a vaccine against HIV.
The new coronavirus is an RNA virus, like HIV. Scientists already know that many viruses incorporate pieces of other genomes into their own in the natural course of evolution, both of plants and animals. Indeed, fully 43% of the human genome is composed of mobile genetic element sequences, which are the leftovers of viral infections that our ancestors experienced over the last 300,000 years.
The new virus also has an exceptionally large genome, of about 30,000 nucleobases. Mobile genetic elements have been discovered in many viruses with large genomes, including coronaviruses. The Indian study Montagnier referred to had been authored by a team from IIT Delhi, among others. They had uploaded their manuscript to the bioRxiv preprint repository only to quickly take it down after commentators pointed out numerous errors in their analysis.
An article published more recently in the journal Nature Medicine analysing the new virus’s genome concluded thus: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
What Montagnier called the “elements” of HIV were short cis-acting elements that scientists had discovered in the genome of coronaviruses in 2005. They are required for genome replication and are shared by many coronaviruses. So if what Montagnier said is true, the whole family of coronaviruses – which originated over 10,000 years ago – would have to be lab-made, and this is obviously nonsensical.
Many experts have already pointed out this obvious flaw in Montagnier’s argument. As Étienne Simon-Lorière, a professor at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, said, “If we take a word from a book and it looks like another word, can we say that one has copied from the other? This is absurd!”
It is surprising to have a scientist of Montagnier’s stature utter such questionable statements – although Montagnier himself is a controversial figure. Among other causes, he has supported anti-vaxxers, homeopathy and a silly claim that DNA emits “electromagnetic waves”.
As he lost credibility among his peers, scientific agencies around Europe began to reject his grant applications, and eventually he was left with no money to pursue his ideas. In a 2010 interview, Montagnier said he was leaving Europe to “escape the intellectual terror.” He added, “I’m no longer allowed to work at a public institute (in France). I have applied for funding from other sources, but I have been turned down.”
Pandemics have historically been breeding grounds for fake news and conspiracy theories. For example, in the 14th century, the bubonic plague epidemic in Europe fuelled a misbelief among Christians that the Jews were deliberately poisoning wells and rivers with infectious “miasma”, leading to the mass persecution of Jews. Even when Montagnier helped discover the HIV virus (alongside Françoise Barré-Sinoussi) in the early 1980s, a prominent conspiracy theory in the US was that HIV is a human-made virus that the government had created to wipe out black people.
And because pandemics are so fraught with misinformation, they also make for an important time to communicate good science, double-check suspicious comments, refuse to accept claims without good reason, and not amplify pseudoscience without suitable qualification.
Felix Bast is a science writer and an associate professor at the Central University of Punjab. This article was originally published on Medium and has been republished here with permission.