With his tragic passing, Mark Wainberg is being lauded for the inestimable global impact he had on the understanding, treatment and public awareness of HIV/AIDS.
A pioneering AIDS researcher and an outspoken advocate for overcoming the stigma attached to the disease, Wainberg drowned April 11 while swimming off the coast of Bal Harbour, Fla. He would have been 72 on April 21.
McGill University dean of medicine Dr. David Eidelman called Wainberg “an international champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
The director of the McGill University AIDS Centre, based at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) since 1990, Wainberg headed research into the disease at JGH’s Lady Davis Institute from 1984, when he established the first lab of its kind in Canada.
Wainberg, a microbiologist who earned a PhD at Columbia University, was internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field, including being the first in Canada to isolate HIV from infected people. That led to the discovery in 1989 of 3TC, one of the first effective antiviral drugs and still among the most widely used treatments today.
In the intervening years, he contributed significantly to the understanding of HIV’s replication and drug resistance, and continued in the search for a vaccine and even a cure.
At the time of his death, he was researching new compounds, called integrase inhibitors, as a possible means of blocking the virus’ replication.
“Mark Weinberg had an inestimable impact on the lives of millions of people through his transformative research and through his extraordinary advocacy,” Eidelman said. “The world has lost a medical giant, an exceptional mentor and a great man.”
McGill principal Suzanne Fortier added: “He was not afraid to speak his mind. Millions of lives have been saved because of his deep caring, his progressive social conscience and his scientific brilliance.”
Almost as important as his work in the lab was his activism globally, especially for HIV prevention and better treatment in developing countries, especially southern Africa.
While president of the International AIDS Society in 2000, he brought its international congress to Durban, South Africa, the first time the event was held in a developing country, which drew attention to the lack of access to anti-HIV medications.
At home, Wainberg was a tireless proponent for more government funding of HIV intervention programs and universal access to prevention and treatment.
He made headlines for criticizing then-prime minister Stephen Harper for not giving HIV/AIDS sufficient priority.
An observant, kippah-wearing Jew, Wainberg also spoke out against discrimination suffered by gay people and the stigma that continued to surround AIDS.
“Promiscuity is without questions a key factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS and is not something any of us should condone,” he said in 2008. “Having said that, I feel strongly that no man or woman has a choice in their sexual orientation. God made them the way they are.”
Last year, Wainberg was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. “He revolutionized our understanding of HIV/AIDS at medical, epidemiological and political levels,” the hall citation read.
The hall gave Wainberg significant credit for AIDS having evolved over 35 years from being almost certainly fatal to a “treatable, survivable and increasingly controlled” disease.
In 2012, Wainberg was awarded the prestigious $100,000 Killam Prize in health sciences by the Canada Council. Three years earlier, the Canadian Medical Association awarded him its Medal of Honour. Wainberg was also an officer of the Order of Canada and of the Ordre national du Québec.
France, which was in the forefront of AIDS research, made Wainberg a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2008, for “helping to save millions of lives around the world.”
Born in Montreal, Wainberg received a BSc from McGill – where he was a professor – in 1966 and a PhD at Columbia in 1972. He did post-doctoral research at the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem.