On April 6, at the annual Mark Wainberg Lecture, the namesake researcher quipped, as he did every year, that it wouldn’t be a “prememorial” event forever.
“At some point,” he quoted friends as saying, “you might not be around any more and then it will really be a memorial lecture.”
The audience members gathered at the Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS Research in Montreal laughed, and none more heartily than the self-deprecating Dr. Wainberg. Then, reflecting on his advancing age, he turned serious and added: “All I can really hope is we’ll have a cure for HIV – or some other way of ending the AIDS epidemic – before I’m banished from the planet.”
Five days later, the world-renowned HIV-AIDS researcher and activist drowned after suffering an asthma attack while swimming near his condominium in Bal Harbour, Fla. He was 71.
A molecular biologist, Dr. Wainberg began his research career studying HTLV-1, the first virus shown to cause cancer (adult T-cell lymphoma). The co-discoverer of that virus was Dr. Robert Gallo, who went on to become the co-discoverer of HIV.
Dr. Wainberg, who worked in Dr. Gallo’s lab in 1980, shifted his focus to what was initially described as “gay cancer.” He established the first AIDS research laboratory in Canada and set to work looking for treatments. In 1989, Dr. Wainberg and his team identified that the drug 3TC (Lamivudine) was effective in slowing the replication of the virus in the body. It became one of the first effective treatments for people infected with HIV, and a cornerstone of what came to be known as antiretroviral therapy.
ART was a game-changer, transforming HIV-AIDS from a deadly infection into a chronic illness for many. But the drugs were expensive and most of the infected lived in the developing world. That grim reality turned many scientists into activists, Dr. Wainberg chief among them.
That was perhaps not a complete surprise. After all, in 1976, he ran for political office under the banner of the Union Nationale in a historic election that saw the separatist Parti Québécois elected.
One of his few other forays into partisan politics came in 2013, when Dr. Wainberg angrily denounced PQ plans for a “Charter of Values” that would, among other things, ban public employees from wearing religious symbols including head coverings. (An Orthodox Jew, he wore a kippa.)
Dr. Wainberg served as president of the International AIDS Society from 1998 to 2000. He lobbied furiously to get the International AIDS Conference to Durban, South Africa, whose government at the time largely denied that AIDS was a problem. Dr. Wainberg’s plan – to shame then-president Thabo Mbeki into action – worked. He spoke forcefully not only in public, but behind the scenes.
Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, recalls that Dr. Wainberg “told Mbeki to his face that it was shameful that he wasn’t offering life-saving HIV drugs to his people.”
“He was forceful and unrelenting. If anyone spoke truth to power, it was Mark,” Dr. Montaner said. The Durban conference is seen as a watershed in turning back the tide of one of the worst pandemics in human history. Prior to the conference, ART was virtually unavailable in the developing world; today, 18.2 million people worldwide take antiretrovirals, almost half of the 36.7 million who are infected with HIV-AIDS.
“When I look back on my career, I always feel that the most important contribution of my life was political and not scientific,” Dr. Wainberg said when the AIDS Conference returned to Durban in 2016.
In fact, over time, the two roles morphed into one. “AIDS is going to be the world’s leading cause of death, so it behooves us all to be AIDS activists,” he said in an interview with McGill News, the university’s alumni publication, in 2000.
But, in recent years, he had dedicated himself to the lab again, convinced that advances in genomics could help defeat AIDS. His work identifying mutations in the HIV genome led him to believe that replication of the virus could be blocked and patients cured of HIV.
Mark Wainberg was born in Montreal on April 21, 1945, to Abraham, who worked for a glassware company, and Fay (née Hafner) Wainberg, who worked in the insurance industry. He attended Outremont High and then McGill University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1966. He then completed a PhD in molecular biology at Columbia University in New York in 1972, and did postdoctoral research at Hadassah Medical School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Wainberg was hired at McGill in 1974 and remained affiliated with the university for his entire career. He was the long-time head of the McGill AIDS Centre and the head of AIDS Research at the Jewish General Hospital’s Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research.When news of his death spread, tributes poured in from around the world.
“Mark Wainberg was a giant of HIV science. His work contributed to saving millions of lives,” said Michel Sibidé, executive director of UNAIDS.
Dr. Roderick McInnes, acting president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and director of the Lady Davis Institute, said: “The 35 million people living with HIV-AIDS are indebted to Mark because, without him, many of them would not be alive today.” He described Dr. Wainberg as a “politician-scientist,” someone who combined scientific excellence with a social conscience.”
Linda-Gail Bekker, president of the International AIDS Society, was even more succinct: “Mark was a true mensch and a great scientist, and an even better friend.”
Dr. Wainberg was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2015. In its citation, the CMHF said he “revolutionized our understanding of HIV/AIDS at a medical, epidemiological and clinical level.” He garnered many other honours over the years. Dr. Wainberg was an officer of the Order of Canada, an officer of the Ordre National du Québec, and a chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur of France. He was awarded the Killam Prize in Health Sciences, one of the country’s top scientific prizes. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
Dr. Wainberg’s son Zev, who is an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said his father was a “complicated, humble, brilliant man.” In addition to his professional accomplishments, he was a deeply religious man. While raised in a secular Jewish family, he embraced Judaism during the time he spent studying in Israel.
Dr. Wainberg was also an inveterate traveller – with three million Aeroplan points, no less – who visited 120 countries. He also loved good Scotch and fine wine – and swimming.
“One of my dad’s joys was going into the ocean, which he did every day,” the younger Dr. Wainberg said at the funeral. He was with his father when he suffered a malaise, and managed to pull him from the water and perform CPR.
“I tried to save him, I tried and I could not. I knew HaShem was taking him away,” he said, weeping.
Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, the synagogue Dr. Wainberg attended every day he was home, said: “Words escape us to describe the great footprint Mark left on the world.”
He noted that the funeral drew an unprecedented cross-section of people, including diplomats, gay-rights activists, scientists, students and neighbours. Judah Aspler, president of the TBDJ synagogue and lifelong family friend, said that while Dr. Wainberg’s accomplishments are many and highly visible, he made many more invisible contributions in his community.
“He was always generous and gracious,” Mr. Aspler said. For example, if an elderly congregant missed weekly services, he would drop by their home to check up on them. Last year, after a 16-year-old girl was stabbed to death during a gay-pride parade in Jerusalem, Dr. Wainberg donated a Torah to an Ethiopian synagogue in her memory. Mr. Aspler also quipped that the gregarious Dr. Wainberg “was always excited to give a speech when invited – or not invited – to do so.”
Dr. Wainberg was predeceased by his parents. He leaves his wife of 48 years, the former Susan Hubschman; two sons, Zev of Los Angeles, and Jonathan of London; and a brother, Lawrence. Dr. Wainberg also had three grandchildren, Jake, Eliana and Julia. Family members said that of all the titles he accumulated over the years, the one that made him most proud was “Zaidy Mark.”
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