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Dr. Joep Lange

AIDS research to see long-term impact from Malaysia jet crash

By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: July 18, 2014 - 7:15 pm ET

The deaths of more than 100 AIDS scientists, activists and health workers, who were among the nearly 300 passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday, is likely to have long-range repercussions for future efforts to advance research on the disease.

Reports have indicated that as many as 108 AIDS researchers could have been on the flight on their way to Australia to attend the 20th annual International AIDS Conference scheduled to begin Sunday in Melbourne.

“These were men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others,” said President Barack Obama during a meeting with reporters Friday. “And they were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.”

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Information has trickled in slowly about the flight’s passengers in the incident’s immediate aftermath, making it difficult to assess the specific short-term impact on AIDS research.

One of those killed in the crash has been identified as former International AIDS Society President Dr. Joep Lange, a Dutch clinical AIDS researcher considered to be among the early pioneers of treatment therapy for the disease.

“Joep Lange was a towering presence in the fight against AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic and a wonderful friend, colleague, and teacher,” Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, said in a written statement. “He inspired legions of AIDS researchers, healthcare workers and activists, and was an inspiration to me personally. He will be sorely missed.”

According to Thomas Hope, a professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, the effects of the disaster will be felt particularly hard within the European scientific community, because a majority of the flight’s passengers were from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

“We can’t even begin to appreciate the impact yet,” Hope said. “That’s just going to devastate the science there.”

He theorized that many of the conference-bound passengers on Flight 17 were younger trainees at the beginning of their careers in the field. Their loss, in terms of AIDS research, will likely be felt long-term, Hope said.

“It’s going to be impossible to appreciate how the lack of their contribution going forward is going to slow things down,” he said. “Nothing like this has ever happened to a discipline of science that I know of—it’s just devastating.”

As many as 14,000 delegates are expected to attend this year’s conference.

“The tone of the meeting itself is really going to be changed, and it will be hard for it to have the impact that it usually would to drive the science forward, in order to advance the field,” Hope said.

The International AIDS Society, the conference convener, released a statement on Friday confirming that the conference would proceed on schedule.

“In recognition of our colleagues’ dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost,” the statement said.

Jen Kates, vice president and director of global health and HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, agreed that the loss of those on the flight was devastating to those dedicated to AIDS research, but was adamant that research advancement will continue.

“This is truly a profound loss for the AIDS community and under tragic circumstances,” Kates said in an email response. “But it can’t and shouldn’t set us back in HIV research. The community of HIV researchers is strong and resilient and, if anything, will redouble their efforts.”

The World Health Organization confirmed that one of its media officers, Glenn Thomas, was also among those killed in the crash.

“Glenn will be remembered for his ready laugh and his passion for public health,” a statement from the organization read. “He will be greatly missed by those who had the opportunity to know him and work with him.”

Malaysian Airlines on Friday posted on its website a breakdown of the nationalities of all the passengers aboard Flight 17 that officials have been able to verify thus far, with all but four yet to be confirmed.

President Barack Obama said officials believe Quinn Lucas Schansman, who held dual U.S. and Dutch citizenship, was the lone American aboard the flight.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson

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