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Obituary: Pioneering HIV Researcher Mark Wainberg


Mark Wainberg, a highly regarded clinician and researcher who helped advance HIV therapy and advocated for access to treatment and care worldwide, died on April 11 in a swimming accident in Florida at age 71.

Wainberg was a professor at McGill University in Montreal, an investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital, and founding director of the McGill University AIDS Centre. He was a past president of the Canadian AIDS Society and of the International AIDS Society (IAS) from 1998 to 2000.

"We have lost one of our fiercest champions," IAS president Linda-Gail Bekker said in a statement. "To those of us in the research community, he was the epitome of dedication from the earliest days of the response. The impact of his work both through and beyond his role with the IAS will live on through the millions of people accessing HIV treatment and those of us who were lucky enough to know him."

In the late 1980s Wainberg was part of the team that determined that lamivudine or 3TC (Epivir) worked against HIV. It was one of the first effective antiretrovirals and is the only early NRTI drug that remains widely used today thanks to its minimal side effects. More recently Wainbergwas also known for his work on HIV drug resistance and HIV cure research.

In addition, Wainberg was committed to ensuring that HIV-positive people worldwide would have access to effective antiretroviral therapy. He also worked to reduce stigma against and criminalization of people living with HIV.

"Mark is probably best known as a co-discoverer of 3TC, an early but still very important HIV drug," said Paul Volberding, director of Director of the University of California San Francisco AIDS Research Institute. "But he was also very committed to the overall international effort to control the epidemic. He was a persistent optimist and a friend to so many."

Wainberg played a key role in bringing the XIII International AIDS Conference to Durban in 2000 -- the first time the conference was held in a developing country -- putting the spotlight on AIDS denialism and lack of availability of HIV treatment in South Africa.

"We did this at a time that very few people in all of Africa (i.e., approximately 7000) had access to life-saving antiretroviral therapy in the hope that journalists would attend the conference and report on the terrible inequities in the world in regard to HIV/AIDS," Wainberg recalled when the conference returned to Durban in 2016. "Not only did this happen but a wide array of politicians also attended from all over the world. The result was that the conference, together with its slogan 'Breaking the Silence,' helped to give birth to a multitude of international assistance programs for the purchase of antiretrovirals, while also stimulating interest by international assistance organizations such as the Gates Foundation, among others."

In 2016 South Africa had the largest antiretroviral therapy program in the world, treating more than 3 million people.

Wainberg was born in 1945 in Montreal, where he lived most of his life. He received his Bachelor's degree from McGill University in 1966 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York City in 1972.

Wainberg died while swimming in rough seas near Bal Harbor, Florida. His son and others pulled him to shore and paramedics attempted resuscitation, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner said he apparently died from an asthma attack. A funeral was scheduled for April 14 in Montreal.

"Mark Wainberg was a giant in HIV science. His work contributed to saving millions of lives," said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé. "UNAIDS and the millions of people living with HIV will mourn Mark Wainberg’s passing and celebrate the huge contribution to the response to HIV he made in his life."