Flight 17 Crash Casts Shadow Over Melbourne AIDS Meeting

A prominent AIDS researcher and five others headed to a medical meeting in Australia were confirmed killed in the crash of a Malaysia Airlines flight, and more who planned to attend the event may be among the dead.

Former International AIDS Society President Joep Lange and his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, were among the dead. Also on board were World Health Organization spokesman Glenn Thomas, lobbyist Pim de Kuijer and program manager Martine de Schutter from the Netherlands AIDS Fund. They were among 298 on flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed in eastern Ukraine, according to statements from their organizations.

The plane was hit by a missile fired from rebel-held territory where pro-Russia separatists oppose the government, President Barack Obama said at the White House today.

Lucie van Mens from the The Female Health Co. was also killed, the Global Network of People Living With HIV said in a statement yesterday from which it later removed names. The Chicago-based Female Health Co. company didn’t return calls requesting comment.

While there were reports that as many as 100 researchers and activists may have been killed, including in comments by Obama at the White House, Chris Beyrer, president-elect of the International AIDS Society, or IAS, said the number is probably far lower, the Washington Post reported.

Colleagues Lost

The Geneva-based IAS declined to comment until it had more information, saying in a statement that “a number of colleagues” were on flight MH17. Malaysia Airlines said it will publish the flight’s passenger manifest after it has contacted the relatives of those killed.

Lange was the head of global health at the Academic Medical Center of the University of Amsterdam. His work focused on the epidemic in Africa, including getting people with HIV onto antiretroviral drugs more quickly, and improving access to drugs on the continent.

He worked on HIV for three decades and was the author of more than 350 scientific papers. Lange was also chief of clinical research and drug development at WHO’s Global Program on AIDS from 1992 to 1995, and IAS president from 2002 to 2004.

“He was an icon,” said Albert Osterhaus, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who said he had known Lange for about 30 years and had collaborated with him in the past. “This is a terrible thing, very difficult.”

Lange was “one of the first and one of the most prominent” researchers and policy advocates on AIDS, said Clifford Lane, deputy director for clinical research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

’Tragic Blow’

“It’s incredibly sad and a tragic blow. This is someone who always spoke his mind in a way that was always seeking to make a positive change,” Lane said. “He wasn’t bashful about criticizing policies that needed to be criticized.”

Lange helped push for access to life-saving antiretroviral treatments for people in developing countries, Lane said. He also built a large treatment and research network in Thailand.

Lane said he didn’t have any information on the number of AIDS researchers killed beyond the names already reported.

The AIDS world has “lost a giant” with Lange’s death, said Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who was awarded a Nobel prize in 2008 for discovering HIV. “I have no words really to express my sadness,” she told reporters.

Choking Back Tears

Speaking at the event in Canberra, Sharon Lewin, head of infectious disease at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and the conference’s other co-chair, choked back tears as she paid tribute to Lange.

The conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to remember those lost. “The IAS is hearing unconfirmed reports that some of our friends and colleagues were on board the flight and, if that is the case, this is a truly sad day,” the organization said in a statement.

The WHO’s Thomas, a Geneva-based communications officer, was a former British Broadcasting Corp. journalist who was with the UN health agency for more than a decade, WHO said in a statement. He leaves behind his partner Claudio and sister Tracey.

“We are in shock,” Rachel Baggaley, coordinator of the UN agency’s HIV prevention program, said by telephone yesterday. “It’s casting a shadow over the whole thing.”

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and musician Bob Geldof are among 14,000 public figures, AIDS researchers and people living with HIV slated to attend the July 20-25 event.

The Boeing Co. 777 crashed about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border in the main battleground of Ukraine’s civil war.