French virologist and Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier recently called the current COVID-19 mass vaccination programmes an "unacceptable mistake" and "a scientific and medical error". He also said that COVID-19 vaccines were creating more variants.

On May 18, 2021, US-based grassroots and investigative organisation called RAIR Foundation published an article and a two-and-a-half minute video clip of an interview with the 2008 Nobel laureate. On May 19, excerpts from the interview were published by a daily news reporting website called Life Site News.

But what went viral on social media is a message claiming that Montagnier has "confirmed" that "all vaccinated people will die within two years". "There is no hope and no possible treatment for those who have been vaccinated already. We must be prepared to incinerate the bodies," the message read.

Montagnier never made such a claim in any of his interviews, clarified RAIR Foundation. "Social media activists are spreading a vicious rumor that the Nobel Laureate claimed those who take the coronavirus vaccine will be dead in two years," read the clarification.

Gagandeep Kang, virologist and professor at the Christian Medical College in Vellore also refuted this claim in a tweet thread but specifically mentioned that "massive vaccination being a mistake is a topic brought up with pseudo-scientific messy incorrect immunology."

But what he did claim in the two-minute clip was that vaccination was an "enormous mistake". Interviewer Pierre Barnérias of Hold-Up Media asked, "How do you view the mass vaccination program? Mass vaccination compared to treatments that work and aren't expensive." Montagnier replied, "It's an enormous mistake, isn't it? A scientific error as well as a medical error. It is an unacceptable mistake. The history books will show that because it is the vaccination that is creating the variants."

FactChecker spoke to two public health experts and both confirmed his anti-vaccine statements to be unscientific and illogical.

On May 25, a Hindi news channel called Sudarshan News aired an exclusive interview with Montagnier. During this interview, Montagnier expressed anti-vaccine sentiments with the channel's Editor-in-Chief Suresh Chavhanke. "Vaccine is not the solution for disease in our time. Antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs can take you in the right direction," the French virologist said. He also said that Remdesivir was toxic and that it should not be used to treat COVID-19.

FactChecker has emailed Luc Montagnier for his comment and will update the story as and when we receive a response. We have also written to Francoise Barre-Sinnoussi, who received the Nobel Prize along with Montagnier in 2008, for her take on his claims.

Who is Luc Montagnier?

Luc Montagnier shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with his colleagues, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and Harald zur Hausen, for the discovery that the human papilloma virus can cause cervical cancer, according to the official website of The Nobel Prize.

While his HIV discovery is unquestioned, Montagnier is now known for his pseudo-scientific and anti-pharma statements which have been widely criticised by health experts and which was also reiterated in his interview with Sudarshan News.

While giving a speech at Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Germany in 2010, Montagnier drew flak for endorsing homeopathy. He claimed that he had detected electromagnetic signals from DNA in highly diluted solutions of the kind used by homeopaths. He further said such "signals" could be used for detecting viral infections.

In 2012, Forbes published an article which mentioned Montagnier's involvement in anti-vaccine circles. In 2020, in an interview with France's CNews, Montagnier said COVID-19 was artificially created in a Chinese laboratory by biologists working on an AIDS vaccine. These claims were debunked by The Wire had debunked that based on an article published in the journal Nature Medicine that said "SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct".

Fact Check

Claim 1: "Vaccinating during an epidemic is unthinkable. Epidemiologists know it. It is the antibodies produced by the virus that enable an infection to become stronger. It's what we call Antibody Dependent Enhancement, which means antibodies favour a certain infection. It is clear that the new variants are created by antibody-mediated selection due to the vaccination," claimed Montagnier in the interview published by RAIR Foundation.

Fact: "Vaccinating during an epidemic is the most sensible thing to do, if safe and effective vaccine is available," TJ John, virologist and former professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore told FactChecker. "The idea mooted by some scientists that given a free run to the virus, it will infect the majority, to reach herd immunity threshold (of 70-75% of all people) and it will stop spreading is the most unintelligent concept proposed for the eventual control of an epidemic," said John.

He further added that vaccines have been used against pandemic influenza A H1N1, influenza A H3N2 and endemic influenza B viruses. Smallpox vaccine has eradicated the disease globally. By using rinderpest vaccine (also known as cattle plague), rinderpest in ruminants and bovines (sheep, goats, cattle) was eradicated.

When it comes to polio, most countries have completely eradicated it, leaving poor countries. Only very poor countries, including India, that cannot afford Salk vaccine, which in order of magnitude more expensive than the very cheap Sabin oral polio vaccine, have not completely eradicated polio, said John.

"We use vaccines against measles, rubella, mumps, varicella (chickenpox), hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Rotaviruses, Japanese encephalitis and human papilloma viruses that cause cancer of uterine cervix — none of these diseases have turned around and caused any problem whatsoever. These vaccines are routinely used in many countries in a wide age range. Influenza vaccines have been in use since 1945 and vaccines save hundreds of thousands of lives of young pre-school children, senior citizens and pregnant women every year. Vaccines have never posed the kind of risks claimed in the discredited news item," the CMC virologist said.

FactChecker also interacted with W Ian Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and professor of Neurology and Pathology at Columbia University, USA. "Antibodies that do not neutralise a virus can make things worse by promoting uptake of the virus into uninfected cells. This mechanism is known as antibody mediated enhancement," Lipkin responded to FactChecker via email.

"Vaccines should not cause antibody mediated enhancement because they are specifically designed to elicit neutralizing antibodies (as well as protective T cell responses). Evolution will favor the survival of viruses that are not neutralized. However, rather than to conclude that this is a reason not to use vaccines, most scientists including me, would conclude that this is the best argument for rapidly vaccinating everyone at risk for infection with the best available vaccines so that SARS-CoV-2 is denied the opportunity to develop resistance. I'm sorry to see that Prof Montaigner and I disagree on these points," he added.

Although there is a speculation of ADE being present in SARS-CoV-2, it is yet not proven. Antibody-dependent enhancement is a phenomenon in dengue virus infection in experimental animals with some evidence of 'antibody-mediated enhancement' of disease/pathology, John said. "It is weird to expect that to occur with reinfection (second infection) with SARS-CoV-2 -- while re-infections have been seen regularly, disease, if at all, has been less severe than first infection -- ADE has never been observed," he confirmed.

Claim 2: Montagnier said a mass vaccination program was an unacceptable mistake, "a scientific error as well as a medical error". "The new variants are a production and result from the vaccination You can see in each country. The curve of vaccination is followed by the curve of deaths. I am currently conducting research with those who have become infected with the coronavirus after getting the vaccineI and I'll show you that they are creating the variants that are resistant to the vaccine," said the French virologist in the May 18 interview.

Fact: SARS-CoV-2 was originally called the Wuhan virus. Let's call this A. One mutational variant D614G called B emerged in April 2020 and since it had higher transmission efficiency than the virus A, and it spread widely throughout the world. This happened before any vaccine was created. In fact, all the present vaccines are based on the D614G variant in B lineage.

Then in September 2020, B1.1.7 variant was detected in the UK. In October, the B1.351 was detected in South Africa. In December, B1.28 was detected in Brazil and designated P1. The ignominious B1.617 and later 618, were detected in India. The B1.617 is such a fast spreader that by now it has reached around the world, like D614G did. All these happened even before any vaccine roll out, explained John.

"When people with immunity to either an earlier infection or with vaccine induced immunity get infected (vaccines protect against disease but not necessarily against infection) some mutations could emerge that show less fitness with antibody — these are called 'vaccine escape mutants'. They are epidemiological curiosities and no one should refuse vaccination for fear of emerging vaccine escape mutants," said John.

"None of the previous antiviral vaccines has given us problems with such mutants. We have to modify vaccines if and when such mutants become a bother. You do not disallow dogs as pets in spite of the fact that dogs may bite or even carry rabies virus — but we train them not to bite and vaccinate then against rabies. We shall cross any bridge when we have to," he concluded.

Claim 3: "Remdesivir is toxic and should not be used to treat COVID-19," Montagnier said in the Sudarshan News interview.

Fact: This is partially true. Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended against the use of Remdesivir in November 2020, it also notified that it was conditional recommendation against the injection's use due to lack of evidence.

According to the latest guidelines released by ICMR, the use of convalescent plasma has been dropped from the recommended treatment protocols for COVID-19. According to many doctors, Remdesivir is also being considered to be dropped from COVID-19 treatment soon as there is no evidence of its effectiveness in treating COVID patients.

An article published on National Center for Biotechnology Information and written by Chinese scientists says that the latest safety data "might be limited by the inclusion criteria, finite sample size and follow-up duration".

"The current safety profile of Remdesivir is still incomplete. Increasing evidence has witnessed COVID-19 is implicated in injuries of multiple organs including lung, liver, gastrointestinal tract, heart and kidney, hence it is complex to distinguish the underlying causes of adverse events during Remdesivir treatment," read the article.

(Editor's note: This article, which was published on May 26, 2021, was updated minutes later to include virologist Gagandeep Kang's tweet thread)