Biogen Corporate Event Was COVID Superspreader, Up to 300,000 Related Infections, Study Says
A Biogen corporate conference held in February at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel was initially traced to about 100 cases of COVID-19 that spread across the country. That number has grown exponentially since and researchers now estimate the number of infections linked to the conference could be as many as 300,000.
The conference was held in the early days of the outbreak, even before most people knew of the dangers of the virus and certainly before mask wearing and social distancing was recommended. Participants in the Biogen conference came from all over the world and after exposure to the virus at the conference, those employees boarded airplanes and returned to their homes. And many of those unknowingly carried the novel coronavirus with them. Because the conference was held in the early days of the pandemic, it had the chance to spread widely before extensive capacity, shut-downs, social distancing and masking were in place.
After an extensive study of the viral genetic signature associated with that conference, a new study published in the journal Science suggests the Biogen conference was a super-spreader event of unknown proportions. The research suggests that between 205,000 and 300,000 COVID-19 cases across the world can be directly traced back to the Boston conference.
The number of infections associated with the conference started small. It was initially reported that three Biogen employees who attended that meeting had tested positive for the virus. Two of the employees came to the United States from the European Union and the other was from Tennessee. But those numbers quickly grew to 15, then 100. In August, the same research team suggested the Biogen meeting contributed to more than 20,000 different cases in four Massachusetts counties. Researchers studied the genetic makeup of confirmed COVID-19 cases from 772 patients in Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Suffolk counties in the Bay State and concluded the meeting was a super-spreader event that infected “tens of thousands.”
The updated study also suggests the Biogen conference is linked to more than 71,000 COVID-19 cases in Florida.
According to a report in the Boston Globe this morning, the research team led by Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, analyzed the genetic sequence of the COVID-19 strains in Massachusetts and compared them nationwide.
“Mutations in the genetic code that naturally occur as the virus makes copies of itself act like passport stamps that show where the pathogen has been. In combination with epidemiology, it can generate a level of detail in contact tracing largely unachievable by a web of interviews,” the Globe reported.
As the Lemieux-led team explored the genetic makeup of the virus, they identified more than 80 distinct SARS-CoV-2 genomes that were present in the Boston area. One viral strain though stood out among the others for its spread. The strain had a unique genetic signature that traced back to the Long Wharf hotel, according to the report.
In all, the research suggests the Biogen conference is linked to an estimated 1.6% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States, the Globe reported.
When Biogen issued a work-from-home order for employees weeks after the conference, there were 564 known cases of COVID-19 in the United States. This morning, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard, there are 15,618,685 known cases in the United States. There have been 292,192 virus-related deaths in this country.