The field of HIV/AIDS research has suffered a savage blow as reports suggest that as many as 108 leading researchers and advocates within the field were on board the Malaysia Airlines flight that that crashed yesterday. While the loss of any individual in such an instance is an extreme tragedy, the situation is particularly saddening given the loss of knowledge and expertise that was dedicated to tackling this dire global health problem.
The Boeing 777 airliner, which took off from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, was on its way to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed on the Ukraine-Russia border, carrying 298 passengers. According to US and Australian governments, the cause of the crash was a surface-to-air missile. There were no survivors.
On board flight MH17 were a number of delegates headed to Melbourne for the AIDS 2014 conference which is due to start on Sunday. Over 100 attendees were scheduled to take this flight, but official confirmation of those on board has not yet been released. However, it is known that former International AIDS Society president and leading AIDS researcher Joep Lange was amongst those on the plane. Lange’s partner and ArtAIDS board member, Jacqueline van Tongeren, was also on board.
“Joep had an absolute commitment to HIV treatment and care in Asia and Africa,” director of Kirby Institute David A Cooper said in a University of New South Wales press-release. Lange has been working on HIV treatments since 1983 and has made ground-breaking contributions to the development of affordable HIV treatments, in particular combination therapies.
According to International AIDS Society president Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, the conference is scheduled to go ahead despite the tragedy, as “we know it’s really what they would have liked us to do.”
The conference is held every two years and is designed as a platform for campaigners to highlight developments in the field, discuss challenges and share expertise. One particular focus this year is said to be the laws in place in some African countries that criminalize homosexuality, and those in the former Soviet Union that punish intravenous drug users.
The situation has, as expected, hit home on the global AIDS community, and many members have expressed their sadness.
“These people were the best and the brightest, the ones who had dedicated their whole careers to fighting this terrible virus,” HIV researcher Clive Aspin told Guardian Australia. “It’s devastating.”
Prof. Richard Boyd, director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories described the situation as “gut-wrenching,” and said that the loss of research leaders will have global ramifications on the field. “That knowledge is irreplaceable,” he told Guardian Australia.