November 22, 2019

Remembering David Cooper: A Great Leader in HIV Epidemiology, Treatment, and Prevention

Kristen Jill Kresge


The battle against HIV/AIDS lost another great soldier recently with the passing of Australian immunologist and clinician David Cooper on March 18. Cooper was a pioneering scientist and champion for HIV treatment and prevention, and he left an indelible mark on the field he dedicated his career to. “He had a great skill in knowing the right questions to ask and then applied a creative and rigorous strategy to find the answer,” recalls Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne. “It was a winning formula over a long and spectacularly successful career.”

Cooper was involved with HIV/AIDS from the earliest days of the epidemic. He was a research fellow in cancer immunology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1980s when HIV was first observed in groups of young gay men in the US. From there, he returned to his home country where he diagnosed the first cases of HIV/AIDS in Australia in 1983 while at St. Vincent’s Hospital at the University of New South Wales. Cooper went on to become the inaugural director of the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society, the leading organization in HIV/AIDS research and epidemiology in Australia. But his reach extended well beyond his home country.

“David was a major global leader from the very beginning of the HIV epidemic—across Australia, the Asia Pacific region, and beyond,” says Lewin. From 1994-1998, he served as president of the International AIDS Society (IAS). During his tenure, Cooper presided over the landmark 1996 IAS conference in Vancouver that ushered in combination antiretroviral therapy, transforming an HIV/AIDS diagnosis from a death sentence into a chronic, treatable disease for those who could access the drugs. He was a steadfast advocate for ensuring that these life-saving treatments became available more broadly, which began to happen in earnest four years later after the IAS conference was held in Durban, South Africa. “He was always highly committed to his patients and a major advocate for people living with HIV,” Lewin says.

Cooper reflected on this remarkable achievement in an article published about him in The Lancet just two years ago. “The story of HIV is a modern medical miracle,” he said. “From despair and tragedy, we have moved into an era of chronic treatable illness, in just 30 years.” This article also notes that as a clinician, Cooper was involved in trials of every HIV medication on the market.

He was also adamant about the need for better HIV prevention, including a vaccine. “Although he is most well known for his extensive work on antiretrovirals and treatment strategies, he had a long standing interest in vaccines and was a firm believer that a vaccine was the only way to see the end of the HIV epidemic,” according to Lewin.

He is remembered by colleagues for his caring nature, his determination, and the way he inspired others. “David Cooper was an early leader in HIV treatment and prevention, and an inspiration for so many people in the AIDS field, myself included,” says Mark Feinberg, chief executive officer of IAVI. “David was exceptionally dedicated to the care of individuals living with HIV and so very thoughtful and generous with his colleagues. His passing is a loss not only to our field but to the many people who were encouraged by him in their efforts to combat AIDS.”