Participants at an international AIDS conference set to begin in Australia Sunday plunged into mourning early Friday morning after learning that 100 AIDS medical researchers and workers including former International AIDS Society President Joep Lange, died en route to the conference on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 which crashed in eastern Ukraine Thursday.
Health researcher Clive Aspin told The Sydney Morning Herald that the news devastated participants who were attending a pre-conference session Friday as 16 years ago, AIDS research pioneer Jonathan Mann was also killed in a plane crash.
"Yet again, we're devastated by a similar tragedy," said Aspin. "It's going to be a very somber mood at the conference in Melbourne, especially for those of us who have been coming to these conferences for many years."
At a press conference Thursday, Michael Kessler of the International AIDS Society expressed condolences to the families of those lost and said the HIV/AIDS community "lost a giant" in Lange.
"The International AIDS Society today expresses its profound sadness at receiving news that colleagues and friends en route to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference, taking place here in Melbourne, Australia, were on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight that has crashed over Ukraine today," said Kessler.
"At this incredibly sad and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost in this tragedy … this is truly a sad day. The IAS has also heard reports that among the passengers was former IAS president Dr. Joep Lange and if that is the case, the HIV/AIDS movement has truly lost a giant," he added.
Director of the Wellcome Trust Dr. Jeremy Farrar paid tribute to Lange and others from the HIV/AIDS community who died on the flight in a report in The Guardian.
"I am deeply saddened that Joep Lange, his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren, and other colleagues from the World Health Organization and the HIV research community are reported to be among those killed in the MH17 disaster," he said.
"Joep was a great clinical scientist, and a great friend of the Wellcome Trust who has long been a valued adviser. He was also a personal friend. He is a great loss to global health research. The thoughts and sympathies of all of us at the Trust are with his family and other families who have lost loved ones in this tragedy," Farrar added.
Associate Professor Brian Owler, federal president of the Australian Medical Association, pointed out that while lost lives were being mourned, the deaths of the researchers could also stall breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS research.
"The amount of knowledge that these people who died on the plane were carrying with them and the experiences they had developed will have a devastating impact on HIV research," Owler told TIME.
"The amount of time it takes to get to a stage where you can come up with those ideas cannot be replaced in a short amount of time. So it does set back work for a cure and strategic prevention of HIV/AIDS very significantly."