AIDS Virus co-discoverer Montagnier visited Hyderabad in 1987; he was enamoured by Golconda Fort

M Somasekhar

The setting was the Bala Hisar Pavilion atop the Golconda Fort. The year was November 1987. The highest point of the fort was alive with the baritone voice of well-known actor Naseeruddin Shah’s dialogue,   ‘Yeh hai Mera Shahar’, to Sanjana Kapoor.

The film being shot was director Ketan Mehta’s Hero Hiralal. Among the curious and few spectators was Dr Luc Montagnier, the French Virologist, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and Nobel Prize winner for Medicine and Physiology of 2008. For nearly two hours, the Scientist was engrossed seeing the fort and the nuances of film shooting.

Dr Montagnier, who passed away on February 8 near Paris at the age of 89 was in Hyderabad as a State Guest and taking part in the inauguration and International Symposium of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) by Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi.

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“As a break from the event, I had a chance to escort Dr Montagnier to the Golconda Fort. There was initial disappointment in store, as the Bala Hisar pavilion was closed to visitors because of the film shooting. Police Officers, however, relented after being told that he was a Guest of the Govt of India. For more than two hours, he was thoroughly engrossed in the takes and retakes,” recalled Dr Sushil Chandani, a molecular biologist and researcher at the CCMB then.

The AIDS virus was hot news in the mid 1980s. From scientists to researchers to other Nobel laureates and even the PM were curious to know about the progress in understanding the deadly virus from the French Scientist. The inaugural and symposium saw the participation of at least 5 Nobel laureates, including Sir Francis Crick of the DNA fame, Dr George Kohler one of the discoveries of the Monoclonal Antibodies along with Dr Ceaser Milstein, Dr Robert Gallo, the co discoverer of  the AIDS virus. In addition, the who’s who of Indian science were there.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr PM Bhargava, the founder Director, it was one of the grand science events of the times. Old timers would recall that after years, the road from the Begumpet Airport to the Tarnaka-Habsiguda, where the cluster of labs—IICT, CCMB and NGRI were located was fully repaired and freshly laid for the visit of the PM and the international dignitaries.

Montagnier, AIDS and Hyderabad

Hyderabad has very interesting connections with the story of the discovery of the deadly virus causing AIDS. The discovery of the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is credited to the pioneering work of Dr Luc Montagnier and the American Virologist, Dr Robert Gallo and team. Their work led to the search for a cure for AIDS.

Further, crucial work in the development of one of the first antiretroviral drugs to control AIDS was done at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), under the Directorship of Dr A V Rama Rao. The Mumbai-based Cipla Pharma and its founder, Dr Yusuf Hamied in collaboration with Dr Rao, produced the world’s first, cost effective drug that turned out to be a game changer.
I had the good fortune of meeting and listening to both Dr Montagnier in 1987 and Dr Robert Gallo, who came first in 1985 at the CCMB. Dr Montagnier went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2008 along with his colleague, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Germany’s Harald zur Hausen.

In a rare coincidence the very next year I was fortunate once again to meet Dr Luc Montagnier and team at the famous Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1988. The PTI had sent me to cover the Centenary of the Eiffel Tower and Bicentenary of the French Revolution. Dr Montagnier, who was the Director, briefed about the developments at the Institute, which by then had produced 8 Nobel Laureates.

Interestingly, Dr Bhargava who had worked with Dr Montagnier back in France in the early 1970’s also was responsible for his second visit in 2002 to the CCMB.

The controversy and patch up on AIDS

Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi worked together on retroviruses at the famous Pasteur Institute, Paris. Their findings coincided with similar results presented by Robert Gallo and coworkers in the U.S. This led to a bitter controversy.

After more than a decade, Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi were credited to have isolated HIV before Gallo, whose virus culture had originally come from the Pasteur Institute. Dr Gallo and team were given recognition for demonstrating that the virus causes AIDS. Montagnier and Gallo later reconciled their differences over the discovery of HIV and acknowledged each other’s roles in finding the virus, according to a report in the Washington Post.

On COVID-19

Interestingly, in the last decade, Dr Montagnier’s research has been controversial as have been his comments too on the recent COVID-19. His claim of detecting electromagnetic signals coming from bacterial DNA, attracted criticism.

On COVID-19 vaccines,  Dr Montagnier’s reported remarks raised a huge controversy. A couple of statements, especially, were singled out like his assertion that variants of the virus are a consequence of natural selection due to vaccinations. Similarly, he said, the Antibody Dependent Enhancement (ADE) would lead to much stronger infection by variants in vaccinated people and finally terming mass vaccination a ‘medical mistake’, found strong opposition from the medical and scientific fraternity.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad

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