As many as 100 of the world's most eminent AIDS researchers and experts may have been on the downed Malaysia Airlines flight, heading to a United Nations AIDS conference in Melbourne.
Trevor Stratton, an HIV/Aids consultant, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): “The cure for AIDS may have been on that plane, we just don’t know. You can’t just help but wonder about the kind of expertise on that plane.”
Members of the public walk past signage on the Princes Bridge for the 20th International AIDS Conference
Joep Lange, a former president of the International AIDS Society, a pioneer of HIV research efforts and a father of five was one of those killed, along with his partner Jacqueline. Lange was the architect and principal investigator of several pivotal trials on antiretroviral therapy and on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
The conference was due to be attended by former President Bill Clinton and Bob Geldof. International Aids Society president-elect Chris Beyrer issued a brief statement outside the Melbourne Convention Centre.
“The International AIDS Society today expressed its sincere sadness at receiving news that colleagues and friends en route to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference taking place in Melbourne, Australia, were on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight that has crashed over Ukraine earlier today,” Beyrer said.
“At this incredibly said and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy.
“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 IAS has also heard reports that among the passengers was a former IAS President Joep Lange and if that is the case then the HIV/AIDS movement has truly lost a giant.”
“There’s a huge feeling of sadness here, people are in floods of tears in the corridors,” Clive Aspin, a veteran HIV researcher who attended the pre-conference plenary session in Sydney, told Guardian Australia.
Chris Beyrer (3rd R), president-elect of the International AIDS Society, addresses the media
“These people were the best and the brightest, the ones who had dedicated their whole careers to fighting this terrible virus. It’s devastating.”
Prof. Richard Boyd, director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories, told Guardian Australia: "We've lost global leaders and also some bright young people who were coming through. It's a gut-wrenching loss. I was involved in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York and it brings back that level of catastrophe.
"But the Aids community is very close-knit, like a family. They will unite and this will galvanize people to strive harder to find a breakthrough. Let's hope that, out of this madness, there will be new hope for the world."
Nine Britons are now known to have been on board Malaysian flight MH17. Officials from Malaysian Airlines confirmed that 298 people were on board the Boeing 777-200, which was downed over the war-torn state. The original estimate was 295.
The plane was shot down over Ukraine by a long-range surface-to-air missile on Thursday, a type of weapon owned both by the Russian and Ukrainian armies. The Ukrainian government has said that the weapon was captured by pro-Russia rebels who control the country's east.
Russian media is also reporting the plane crash could be a false flag attack by the Ukrainian army, and even that it was an intended assassination of President Vladimir Putin, who Ukrainians allegedly believed was travelling on the plane, according to an Interfax report.