Joep Lange was a pioneering Aids researcher whose work saved countless lives but, in the MH17 crash, cost him his own
Joep Lange, the virologist, who was killed in the Malaysian Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine aged 59, was a pioneer in the field of HIV/Aids since the days when the epidemic was first identified in the early 1980s; in recent years he was at the forefront of the campaign to improve access to anti-retroviral drugs in poor countries.
Lange was instrumental in the development of techniques of clinical care of HIV-infected patients from as early as 1982, when the disease, then spreading rapidly among gay men, did not even have a name. In the later 1980s, as a researcher at Amsterdam University Hospital, Lange led pioneering research into the risk of a carrier of HIV developing full-blown Aids, establishing that the risk is determined by the level of a protein known as “P24” in a carrier’s blood.
He went on to lead early tests on the drug Retrovir, an antiretroviral which proved to be the first breakthrough in Aids therapy, significantly reducing the replication of HIV in patients. In a pilot study 18 Dutch HIV-positive men were given the drug; in 13 of them the count of antibodies against the virus (an indication of its presence) was reduced significantly by the treatment. Lange went on to lead a joint programme, involving research bodies in London, Copenhagen, Sydney and Amsterdam, which confirmed these early findings. Later he led research on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Partly due to the availability of antiretroviral therapy in richer countries, Aids is now largely a disease of the poor. More than 95 per cent of infections occur in developing countries. As head of Clinical Research and Drug Development at the Global Programme on Aids of the World Health Organisation in the 1990s, then as president of the International Aids Society from 2002 to 2004, and finally as founder chairman of the non-profit PharmAccess Foundation until his death, Lange criss-crossed the world speaking at conferences, advising local health workers and launching campaigns to provide affordable access to effective drug therapy in poorer countries: “If we can get cold Coca-Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa, it should not be impossible to do the same with drugs,” he declared.
Sometimes his campaigns took on an apocalyptic note. At a conference in London in 2004 he warned that while HIV/Aids did not by itself cause wars and insurgencies, it was nonetheless severely destabilising in other ways: “South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland will be potential basket cases if they don’t act, and in the case of Botswana, if it doesn’t act, it will cease to exist,” he said.
Joseph Lange, always known as “Joep” was born at Nieuwenhagen in the Netherlands on September 25 1954 and studied Medicine at the University of Amsterdam, qualifying in 1981 and taking a PhD in 1987. As well as taking leading positions on many international bodies concerned with Aids, from 2006 he was a Professor at the Academic Medical Centre at the University of Amsterdam, where he guided more than 30 PhD students and published more than 350 papers in peer-reviewed journals. A founding editor of the academic journal Antiviral Therapy, he was also scientific director of HIV[e]Ducation, an online learning site for medical professionals. On Thursday morning Lange boarded Malaysian Airline’s flight MH17 to attend an international conference on Aids in Melbourne, Australia, where he was due to speak on Sunday. Both he and his wife Jacqueline have been confirmed as among the crash victims, along with a large number of other delegates travelling to the conference. Lange was the doting father of five daughters. Among the many messages on Twitter posted by his colleagues, one friend recalled how she had often found him cooking for his daughters while on conference calls discussing HIV: “I asked him why he worked so much. He said “Do you know how much it costs to buy shoes for five girls?’”