MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—As thousands of researchers gathered here today to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference, which starts Sunday, the usual joyous hugs of greeting between far-flung colleagues were replaced by hugs of sorrow at the loss of Dutch HIV scientist Joep Lange, a leading light in the field, and at least five others heading to the meeting who were on the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine on 17 July.
Media reports today speculated that as many as 100 HIV researchers may have been aboard the downed jet, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur—a number repeated by President Barack Obama in his remarks today on the tragedy. But at what was supposed to be a celebratory dinner tonight for select delegates, Sharon Lewin, co-chair of the meeting, said that so far, six people expected to come to the meeting were known to have boarded the flight: Lange, his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren, three others working in the HIV/AIDS field in the Netherlands, and World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Glenn Thomas. “We actually don’t know the full story,” said Lewin, a researcher here at the Burnet Institute. (A story in The Washington Post says the meeting has now confirmed seven names.)
Many colleagues praise Lange, who was head of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development (AIGHD), for his leadership and vision in the HIV/AIDS field. In a speech at the dinner, David Cooper, head of the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society in Sydney, Australia, explained that he met Lange in 1987 in Paris, at a meeting that revealed promising results from human studies of AZT, the first anti-HIV drug to come to market. Lange, he said, early on recognized that a single drug against HIV likely would fail, just as it had with tuberculosis, and that companies had to collaborate—and that serial use of these so-called monotherapies would be a disaster.
“He single-handedly convinced the pharmaceutical industry that combination chemotherapy was the way to go,” said Cooper, who became close personal friends with Lange. “It was really Joep who made it clear to them that the way they were doing drug development was wrong.”
Once combination therapy proved its worth in the mid-1990s, Lange made it his mission to bring the treatment to the world’s poor. “The one person I think was responsible very early for advocacy that treatment could go to people in low- and middle-income countries was Joep,” said Cooper, who started an Australian-Dutch-Thai program with him to deliver antiretroviral drugs to people in Thailand called HIV-NAT. “He always told you his view. He always told the truth. His ideas were different, and you always listened to him.” Cooper said Lange probably saved “tens of thousands of lives” by advocating that everyone, regardless of means, should have access to antiretroviral drugs. “That was Joep’s legacy,” Cooper said.
Epidemiologist Chris Beyrer, the incoming president of the International AIDS Society and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights in Baltimore, Maryland, says Lange had legions of admirers and, though he could be brutally blunt, few detractors. “Joep was one of the most loved and respected people in the field,” Beyrer said.
Lange's partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, was the communications director at AIGHD. A statement by the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam says Van Tongeren knew the field very well because she once worked as a nurse for patients with HIV/AIDS, but over the years had taken on more and more managerial tasks at the institute.
Several others from the Dutch HIV/AIDS community were on board as well. STOP AIDS NOW!, a Dutch advocacy group, confirmed on its Facebook page that two of its employees perished: lobbyist Pim de Kuijer and Program Director Martine de Schutter. Also among the dead is Lucie van Mens, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, was director of support for the Female Health Company, which manufactures female condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.
The crash also claimed the life of Glenn Thomas, a spokesman for WHO. A former BBC reporter, Thomas ran communications for WHO's tuberculosis department for many years. "His twin sister says he died doing what he loved," a WHO statement issued today said.