Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French scientist who helped discover HIV but aroused criticism with some of his later work, has died at age 89.
Montagnier died Tuesday in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, The New York Times reports.
His discovery was important but not without controversy. The deadly disease that had first surfaced in 1981 and was eventually given the name of AIDS, for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, was devastating gay and bisexual men, along with certain other populations, but its cause remained mysterious for some time.
Some scientists, however, suspected it was caused by a retrovirus, “a kind of germ that slips into the host cell’s DNA and takes control, in a reversal of the way viruses typically work; hence the name retro,” the Times notes.
Montagnier, an expert on retroviruses, and his team at the Pasteur Institute did research in 1983 on a lymph node that had been removed from a person with AIDS. That year, they announced that in the tissue sample they had found a new retrovirus, which they called lymphadenopathy associated virus, which they believed was the cause of AIDS, but they cautioned that more research was needed.
In 1984, an American lab run by Dr. Robert Gallo reported its scientists had confirmed that a retrovirus, which they called HTLV-III, was associated with AIDS. There was some initial confusion as to whether it was a different virus or the same one Montagnier identified, and when it was found that Gallo’s group used a sample from the same person, there were accusations that he had obtained the virus from the Pasteur Institute.
Montagnier then sued Gallo, alleging the American had used the French team’s research to get a U.S. patent on a blood test for HIV, but the suit was eventually settled out of court. In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac agreed to declare both scientists discoverers of the virus, which the previous year had officially been named HIV, for human immunodeficiency virus. They also agreed to split the royalties on the blood test between both nations.
Montagnier and one of his Pasteur Institute colleagues, Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, received the Nobel Prize in 2008 for their discovery of HIV, one of many awards Montagnier accrued over the course of his career.
In his later years he alienated many of his fellow scientists, though, with strange claims such as that DNA produced electromagnetic radiation and that antibiotics could cure autism. He also contended that other factors, perhaps bacteria, likely combined with HIV to cause AIDS, contrary to what most experts believed.
Recently he waded into further controversy by questioning the effectiveness of vaccines against COVID-19. Against the evidence, he claimed vaccines caused viral variants, and he criticized President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates. He also asserted that COVID-19 was created by humans as part of HIV vaccine research. He based that claim on a study that has since been debunked and retracted.