Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was reportedly shot down by a ground to air missile just 40 kilometres short of Ukraine’s Eastern border with Russia, had on it an estimated 100 top AIDS researchers who were all en route to an AIDS conference in Australia.
The exact number of scientists on board the flight is not certain, however email conversations have indicated to delegates in Sydney that approximately 100 people were aboard the flight.
In total, the number of passengers on the flight was 298, of which 154 were Dutch, 27 Australian, 38 Malaysian, 30 US citizens and 9 British. There were also 80 children aboard the plane.
Just 50 kilometres from the Russian border in the East of Ukraine, the plane apparently began to decline and it was found burning near the Ukraine border. According to the adviser to the Ukraine Interior Minister, the plane was apparently shot down by a BUK ground to air missile. The BUK is a Soviet-era ground-air missile which operates at medium range, specialised to engage aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, smart bombs and cruise missiles. Modern versions of the BUK can reach a distance of up to 25 km.
It is unclear, however, who is responsible for shooting down the plane, as both sides in Ukraine’s current civil conflict have stated that the other party is to blame.
To add to the complexity of the situation is the fact that the area was declared a no-fly zone by the State Aviation Administration of Ukraine on the 8th of July, 2014, after a Ukranian military plane was shot down while carrying supplies in the same location. The no-fly zone, however, was only restricted to 32,000 feet, but the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was cruising at 33,000 feet, above the limit. Also, many other planes had continued to fly the route passing through Ukraine at the time, with Malaysia Airlines not the most frequent of the companies to still fly through Ukraine.
Of the AIDS researchers on the plane that was shot to the ground, Joep Lange is the researcher that stands out. As a former president of the International AIDS society and a world-renowned HIV researcher from the Netherlands, the knowledge and expertise that is lost will have definite effects globally.
Professor Richard Boyd, who is a director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories expressed grave concern upon hearing the news. “This will have ramifications globally because whenever you lose a leader in any field, it has an impact. That knowledge is irreplaceable,” Boyd said.