Winning a Nobel Prize is the greatest honour a scientist can achieve. However, the prize means that they will be looked upon as people with special wisdom and insight and their views and endorsements will be eagerly sought. This is a simple error, as excellence in one time and place does not mean that winners need be superlative in all areas.
Frenchman, Luc Montagnier received his Nobel Prize for work performed a quarter of a century ago on the discovery of the HIV virus. However, he has recently been making bizarre pronouncements about how he believes he can teleport DNA through a homeopathic-like process. Homeopaths have pounced on this work as vindication of their strange beliefs about serial dilutions. Mainstream reception has been less kind and Montagnier has promised to move to China to avoid the “intellectual terror” he describes he has suffered for trying to defend the discredited work of his associate Jacques Benveniste.
But this week, more disturbing ‘eccentricity’ has come to light. A company in South Africa, edge2edge Global Investments, is claiming to market a nutritional programme for HIV and has announced it wants to float on the London Stock Exchange.
This company is producing an Imuniti Pack that is targeted at those with HIV and is supposed to reduce the viral load in patients. However, this pack consists of “protein- enriched porridge, water purification drops and extracts from several plants, including sutherlandia, spirulina, Chinese green tea, African potato, rooibos and aloe vera.”
Imuniti is obviously struggling to sell the product but hopes a London listing will boost the company. Furthermore, the company claims that Luc Montagnier has been running a trial on the product, at the Centre Integre de Recherches Biocliniques d’Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, that is showing positive results. There are no published details of this trial as yet, and few independent checks on what Montagnier’s involvement is.
However, if reports are to be believed then this is a pretty disturbing development. At the Africa Forum in Mozambique last week, Montagnier was interviewed on his views about the need for new treatments in Africa.
Not everybody – especially in Africa yet has access to the treatment [anti-retrovirals]. The treatment has to be given for the rest of the patients lives. If it was interrupted the virus comes back so my problem now it is time to find some complimentary treatments which will shorten the treatment for ARV’s immune system of the virus itself.
In itself, this might be a respectable statement. But does Montagnier really believe the answer lies in porridge and potato pills? News reports suggest that Montagnier believes this treatment “showed a substantial reduction in the viral DNA in 71% of the patients” who were taking both AIDS drugs and the supplements.”. The South African Business Day web site says,
Viral DNA was measured using a “new biomarker developed by Prof Montagnier”, but Imuniti did not explain what this was or how it worked. It said polymerase chain reaction tests found that 28% of the patients taking the nutritional supplements “had viral DNA disappear after three months” and claimed this was “the first time viral DNA has ever been impacted by a natural combination product”.
Given Montagnier’s recent forays into believing he can detect pathogenic material with magic homeopathic boxes, we should treat such claims with extreme caution.
We should also be extremely cautious about the company behind Imuniti. Business Day also report that the South African Revenue Service has been investigating the company for “alleged involvement in a R100m pyramid scheme.”
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced the crackdown in his budget speech to Parliament, saying investigators were looking into “a multimillion-rand suspected fraudulent investment scheme involving the abuse of trust of vulnerable citizens — this time the product is a so- called immune booster pack for HIV/AIDS sufferers”.
We can only hope that the struggling and squabbling firm gets nowhere. South Africa has suffered enormously at the hands of quacks claiming that nutrient pills and vegetables are the answer to the HIV problem. Ben Goldacre describes in his book Bad Science how Matthias Rath exploited the Mbeki government’s fantasies that a local, African HIV solution could be found by selling his vitamin pills in place of effective treatments. Health minister, Tshabalala-Msimang, also had fantasies that the African potato, beetroot, garlic and lemons would be the answer – the South African ‘salad stall’ approach to this dreadful crisis.
Harvard University estimated that these lethal delusions cost the lives of 300,000 people in South Africa. These lives could have been saved if known effective treatments had been provided. Instead, people were told that ARVs were poison and that nutrition was the answer.
These nutritional quack cures are a massive distraction at best, and at worst, murderous delusions that pray on nationalism, ignorance, desperation and poverty. By co-opting the name of a Nobel Prize winner, these cruel and false hopes are given attention that they do not deserve. If there is merit in the porridge and potato pills then the company, and Montagnier, have an overwhelming moral duty to ensure there is full transparency, disclosure and publication of any results so far achieved. I doubt that will happen in any meaningful way.
The Treatment Action Campaign,a charity at the heart of getting effective treatments to people with HIV in South Africa sums up the problem very succinctly,
We recommend that you DO NOT put your trust in one of the numerous people and organisations offering cures and treatments for HIV/AIDS. Many people with HIV are taken advantage of by unscrupulous charlatans or well-intentioned but uninformed people. Learn the science and trust the science. HIV is a manageable chronic disease if you follow sound medical advice. It is deadly if you do not.
Let’s hope it is the last we hear of these unsubstantiated claims.