The Malaysian passenger plane that was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday was carrying more than 100 public health experts on their way to a prominent international meeting on AIDS, according to several news reports. Their deaths have prompted an outpouring of grief from the scientific community.
Those passengers were on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference, which begins on Sunday in Melbourne, Australia. The group hosting the event expressed its “sincere sadness” at receiving the news in a statement released on the afternoon of Malaysia Airlines MH17’s fatal crash.
According to the Associated Press, the exact number of individuals who were killed on their way to the conference is unconfirmed. However, Australian officials have noted that “there is no doubt it’s a substantial number” that includes “medical scientists, doctors, people who’ve been to the forefront of dealing with AIDS across the world.”
“The cure for AIDS may have been on that plane, we just don’t know,” Trevor Stratton, an HIV/AIDS consultant who in Sydney for a pre-conference event, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The plane’s passengers included Joep Lange, the former president of the International AIDS Society and a tireless advocate for expanding access to affordable HIV treatment in impoverished countries. Lange had studied HIV/AIDS for more than three decades, and the Dutch researcher was considered to be a giant in the field. “He’s one of the icons of the whole area of research. His loss is massive,” Richard Boyd, a professor of immunology in Melbourne, told Reuters.
Another passenger was Glenn Thomas, a media relations coordinator at the World Health Organization (WHO) who had been with the group for more than a decade. Several other WHO staffers were also en route to the conference, and the organization is waiting for confirmation about whether they were also on board the MH17 flight.
As of now, the conference is scheduled to proceed as planned. But other attendees are telling reporters that it will take on an atmosphere of mourning. “There’s a huge feeling of sadness here, people are in floods of tears in the corridors,” Clive Aspin, an HIV researcher who attended the pre-conference event in Sydney, said in an interview with the Guardian. “These people were the best and the brightest, the ones who had dedicated their whole careers to fighting this terrible virus. It’s devastating.”
So far, emergency rescue workers have recovered more than 180 bodies from the site of the crash. The tragedy comes just one day after the United Nations published an optimistic report suggesting that we’re on track to end the global AIDS epidemic by 2030.