A strategy meeting of a Massachusetts-based drug company played a much greater role in spreading the novel coronavirus than previously believed, a new study finds.
The international Biogen Inc conference, held at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel in late February, led to roughly 20,000 cases of COVID-19 across the US in two months.
That figure is 625-fold greater than the more than 90 cases previously attributed to the meeting back in early March.
Researchers from several state institutions, including the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, found that the virus responsible for the outbreak was a strain with a specific genetic mutation.
This mutation was detected in two elderly French patients around the same time it appeared at the Biogen conference, implying the strain likely came from western Europe.
A strategy meeting of 175 senior managers at Biogen Inc was held at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel (pictured) in late February
Originally, health experts linked the conference to more than 90 coronavirus cases across the state and around the US. Pictured: Biogen headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts
The study, which was published on the pre-peer review site medRxiv.org, never mentions Biogen by name and only refers to ‘an international business conference held in Boston from February 26-27.’
The conference was attended by 175 of the company’s senior mangers during the same time period.
For the paper, the team isolated viral genomes – the complete RNA makeup – from 772 patients in Massachusetts.
Nearly all of them tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, within the first week of the outbreak.
Researchers looked at mutations in the virus’s genetic code and found more than 80 distinct genomes that was ‘introduced’ into the state on separate occasions from late January to early May.
In a recent study of 772 patients, researchers found one distinct strain (in blue) in more than one-third of patients linked back to the conference and believe it caused more than 20,000 infections over two months
Most came from other US states and western Europe, but did not lead to widespread illness.
However, one of the genomes had a unique mutation that infected 289 – more than one-third – of the patients examined.
What’s more, this mutation traced back to the Biogen meeting, including 28 people known to have attended, worked at the hotel or were close contacts.
In April, this sub-strain would hit at least two Boston homeless shelters, infecting 122 residents and staffers
The study highlights the far-reaching effects of indoor super-spreader events, how little the public knew about the virus at the time and how it transmitted from wealthy pharmaceutical executives to the city’s most vulnerable residents.
‘We’re not trying to point fingers,’ co-author Dr Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen surveillance at the Broad Institute, told The Boston Globe.
‘Some [viral] introductions fizzle out, others light fires. The circumstances of this event – the fact that it happened so early in the epidemic and the timing of where we were with COVID in the public consciousness – meant it had a disproportionate effect.’
The researchers say the strategy meeting – an annual event for Biogen, which has an estimated 7,500 employees around the world and earns about $12 billion in revenue – created the ideal effects for a super-spreader event.
Attendees came from all over the country, including Michigan, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and the world, such as Australia, Slovakia and Sweden.
They shook hands, packed into elevators and meeting rooms and sat together while eating dinner.
A spokesman told The Wall Street Journal in March that about one week after the meeting, some people complained of symptoms resembling the flu.
Biogen reportedly reached out to public health authorities, who asked that meeting attendees self-quarantine for 14 days to monitor their conditions.
The conference was held before US health experts recommended social distancing and wearing face masks.
The company told The Boston Globe in a statement that, at the time, it followed US regulations and did not dispute that the gathering led to 20,000 cases.
‘We never would have knowingly put anyone at risk,’ the statement read.
‘When we learned a number of our colleagues were ill, we did not know the cause was COVID-19, but we immediately notified public health authorities and took steps to limit the spread.’