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International AIDS conference co-chair Dr. Mark Wainberg, an AIDS expert from McGill University in Montreal, addresses an event raising awareness about the disease at the conference in Toronto, on Aug.13, 2006.

Sturat Nimmo/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mark Wainberg, a Canadian researcher who helped revolutionize the world's understanding of HIV-AIDS at a scientific, medical and political level, has died unexpectedly.

He is believed to have drowned on Tuesday afternoon while on holiday with his family in Miami.

"Canada and the world have lost a great scientist and a great man," Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said in an interview.

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Dr. Wainberg, 71, was director of the McGill University AIDS Centre and a former president of the International AIDS Society.

A virologist, he became interested in AIDS in the 1980s during the early years of the pandemic.

Dr. Wainberg identified 3TC (Lamivudine) as an antiviral, and it became one of the first effective treatments for people who contracted HIV. Later, he also published some of the earliest research on the effectiveness of antiretroviral cocktails.

However, Dr. Wainberg did not limit himself to laboratory work. He became an outspoken advocate for human rights, from denouncing the criminalization of HIV-AIDS, through to demanding that treatment be more available and affordable, especially in the developing world.

While president of the International AIDS Society, Dr. Wainberg was instrumental in bringing the International AIDS Conference to Durban, South Africa in 2000. The pressure exerted by activists led to the availability of low-cost treatments; today, 18.2 million people worldwide take antiretrovirals, almost half of the 36.7 million who are infected.

In recent years, Dr. Wainberg had once again returned to the lab. His work identifying mutations in the HIV genome led him to believe replication of the virus could be blocked with medication and patients cured of HIV.

In 2015, Dr. Wainberg was named to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame for his contributions to medicine and "for having made the world a better place."

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He is also an officer of the Order of Canada, an officer of the Ordre national du Québec, and a Chevalier in the Legion d'Honneur of France.

Miguel De La Rosa, acting chief of the Bal Harbour Police Department in suburban Miami, said they responded to a 911 call on Tuesday after Dr. Wainberg was pulled unconscious from the water.

Police said that a family member, after losing sight of Dr. Wainberg, swam out to help; he and bystanders pulled him to the beach. Paramedics performed CPR, but he was declared dead at the hospital. It is unclear if he died from drowning or another reason.

Because it is Passover, the family was unavailable for comment.

Dr. Wainberg, a life-long Montrealer, graduated from McGill University with a bachelor of science in 1966, then went on to complete a Ph.D. from Columbia University and do postdoctoral research at Hadassah Medical School of Hebrew University before returning to his alma mater, McGill.

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