Luc Antoine Montagnier (US: /ˌmɒntənˈjeɪ, ˌmoʊntɑːnˈjeɪ/; US: /mənˈ-/, French: [mɔ̃taɲe]; born 18 August 1932) is a French virologist and joint recipient with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Harald zur Hausen of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). He has worked as a researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and as a full-time professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.
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!”
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.
NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW
KIYOSHI ANDO, Nikkei senior staff writer
April 25, 2020 05:11 JST
Was coronavirus made in a lab? Claim met with skepticism
French Nobel laureate adds fuel to fire in Wuhan origin debate
TOKYO — One of the Nobel laureates responsible for discovering HIV has turned heads with a recent claim that the novel coronavirus was created by scientists, possibly in the process of seeking an AIDS vaccine.
While support for Luc Montagnier’s view is almost nonexistent in the scientific community, its existence underscores how little the world knows about the pathogen behind the global pandemic.
In an interview last week, the French virologist cited a paper by mathematician Jean-Claude Perez, in which Montagnier himself is thanked in the acknowledgments.
The paper purports to show that within a narrow section of the genome of the new coronavirus, six fragments of genetic information from HIV were found. The presence of HIV-related elements in such a small fraction — less than 1% — of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, suggests that these could not have been inserted naturally, Perez and Montagnier argue. The virus must have been artificially engineered, they say.
Leading French newspapers and magazines, including Le Monde and Le Figaro, reported Montagnier’s comments. But other scientists are skeptical. Unlike the strict screening put in place for prestigious academic journals, Perez’s paper was published on a site that does not require prior peer review.
Researchers from France’s Institut Pasteur and the National Center for Scientific Research have rejected the view that the virus is man-made, arguing that exchanging of information among viruses occurs frequently in nature.
The skepticism is not confined to France.
A group of scientists at institutions including U.S.-based Scripps Research published an article in the respected journal Nature last month outlining evidence that the virus is “not the product of purposeful manipulation.”
The spike proteins on the surface of the virus are not optimally configured to bind to receptors on human cells, suggesting that it is the result of natural selection rather than artificial engineering, the paper found. The researchers also state that the overall molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2 is very different from those of other known coronaviruses, whereas a human-developed virus would probably have been developed from preexisting structures.