The AIDS researchers killed Thursday in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over eastern Ukraine were “innocent, committed human beings who were on their way to a meeting to try to do good for the world,” according to the Buffalo-born leader of an organization working toward an AIDS vaccine who had professional ties to many of the victims.
“To have to get tied up in this senseless battle, it’s just outrageous,” said Margie Hempling McGlynn, president and chief executive officer of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. “We have to find a way to put an end to it.”
The researchers were traveling to the International AIDS Conference, scheduled to begin Sunday in Melbourne, Australia. The plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, President Obama said Friday.
The field of AIDS research lost one of its most prominent members in Dr. Joep Lange, a former president of the International AIDS Society and the executive scientific director of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, McGlynn said.
“Joep has been a partner to my organization for many years,” she said. “He is well-known to myself, my head of research. He’s a member of my scientific advisory committee for three or four years and provided us with very sage advice on how best to approach the development of an AIDS vaccine. He was a very important partner to us and unfortunately he was on the flight.”
Her organization has an office in Amsterdam, where the flight originated, and while no staff members were on the flight, “We had many partners from the advocacy and communications world who were on that flight,” she said.
They include Dr. Lucie van Mens, an expert in HIV/AIDS prevention; Martine de Schutter, a program manager at Bridging the Gaps, which lobbies for universal access to HIV prevention; and Pim de Kuijer, a lobbyist at a group in the Netherlands called Stop AIDS Now!
“All three of those individuals were close advocacy partners of my organization that we would work with to create the buy-in to the importance of funding AIDS prevention research and funding for AIDS treatment as well,” said McGlynn, a South Buffalo native and graduate of Mount Mercy Academy and the University at Buffalo.
Lange worked closely with IAVI board member Eric Goosby in 1984 when the AIDS epidemic was hitting San Francisco, she said.
“Eric told me that Joep came to San Francisco General in 1984 to discuss how to treat and care for AIDS patients,” she said. “He spent 10 days there mapping out what we know about the epidemic, the early diagnosis and how we should set up a clinical trial network so that we could go back and identify effective drugs.”
Lange also worked with IAVI board chairman Alex Coutinho to set up the Infectious Disease Institute in Uganda. Lange was eulogized Thursday night at a dinner attended by researchers who arrived early for the conference, the New York Times reported. One recalled a quotation by Lange: “If we can get a cold can of Coke to any part of Africa, we can certainly deliver AIDS treatment.”
“That’s exactly the type of person he was,” McGlynn said. “He was so intelligent, but yet he was also so sincere and empathetic to those who were impacted by the epidemic. He just found it an outrage that we didn’t have access in the most vulnerable parts of the world.”
McGlynn noted Thursday’s crash is at least the third time the AIDS research community has lost great minds in plane crashes. Dr. Irving Sigal, a biochemist with the Merck pharmaceutical company, was killed in the 1988 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
“I was at Merck at the time, and it had a devastating impact, but clearly others eventually stepped in and filled that gap, and I know many dedicated the rest of their careers to the memory of Irving,” she said.
Renowned AIDS researcher Jonathan M. Mann was killed in the crash of Swiss-air Flight 111 on Sept. 2, 1998. His wife, Mary Lou Clemente-Mann, an AIDS-vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins University, also died.
“The individuals who are involved in HIV research are doing this because of the passion and commitment that we all have to bringing an end to this pandemic,” McGlynn said. “While we’re all extremely saddened by their loss and their contributions will be missed, I have no doubt that we’ll stand on their shoulders and make our commitment to ending this pandemic even stronger.”