Luc Montagnier, Nobel-Winning Virologist Who Discovered HIV, Dies at 89

Marcia Frellick

February 10, 2022

The French virologist Luc Montagnier, PhD, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in isolating the human immunodeficiency virus, has died at age 89, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported today.

Dr Luc Montagnier

Montagnier died on Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, according to news reports.

Montagnier and colleague Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, PhD, shared the Nobel for their work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Ther achievement paved the way for HIV tests and antiretroviral drugs that allow patients to manage the virus as a chronic illness.

"Outlandish" Statements

While Montagnier's vital early discoveries on AIDS were celebrated, he was later dismissed by scientists "for his increasingly outlandish theories," notably, statements related to COVID-19, AFP reports.

Among his statements, the AFP says, were that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was laboratory-made and that vaccines were responsible for the appearance of variants.

He also suggested that autism is caused by infection and set up much-criticized experiments to prove it. He claimed antibiotics could cure the condition.

"And he believed that anyone with a good immune system could fight off HIV with the right diet," AFP reports.

"He was always controversial, but I had the greatest respect for the team he assembled," Donald P. Francis, who directed the AIDS laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, told The New York Times.

Bitter Rivalry With US Scientist

According to AFP, Montagnier had a bitter rivalry with US scientist Robert Gallo in identifying HIV.

The New York Times reports that Montagnier sued Gallo for using his discovery for a US patent.

The Washington Post reports that former President Ronald Reagan and former French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac entered the fray, with both sides claiming a share of the credit.

"The suit was settled out of court, mediated by Jonas Salk, who had years earlier been involved in a similar battle with Albert Sabin over the polio vaccine," the Times reports.

Montagnier and Gallo are co-credited with discovering that HIV causes AIDS. Although the Nobel jury made no mention of Gallo in its citation, AFP notes, in 1986, Montagnier and Gallo shared the Lasker Award — the US equivalent of the Nobel — with Myron Essex, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health. Montagnier was credited with discovering the virus and Gallo for linking it to AIDS.

How the HIV Discovery Began

The path to discover HIV started in Paris in the Viral Oncology Unit at the Pasteur Institute on January 3, 1983, according to The New York Times. On that day, Montagnier received a piece of lymph node that had been removed from a 33-year-old man with AIDS.

At that point there was no known cause, no known tests, and no known treatments for AIDS.

Montagnier was an expert in retroviruses, and many physicians were beginning to suspect AIDS was caused by a retrovirus — an RNA virus that replicates by inserting a DNA copy of its genome into a host cell.

Montagnier's team found in the lymph-node sample a retrovirus never seen before. They first named it LAV, for lymphadenopathy-associated virus. The team reported the landmark results in the May 20, 1983, issue of the journal Science, concluding that further studies were needed to prove that LAV caused AIDS.

The next year, the laboratory run by Gallo, at the National Institutes of Health, published four articles in one issue of Science confirming the link between a retrovirus and AIDS, the Times reports.

The Times reports Montagnier married Dorothea Ackerman in 1961 and had two daughters, Anne-Marie and Francine, and a son, Jean-Luc. Information about survivors was not immediately available.

Tributes on Twitter include one from American physicist Richard M. Fleming, saying, "A great light has gone out in the world today.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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