- One conference held in Boston may be responsible for tens of thousands of coronavirus cases across the state, country, and even world, a new study published online on Tuesday said.
- The conference was hosted by Biogen at Marriott Long Wharf hotel on February 26 and 27, the Boston Globe reported.
- Initial reports only officially linked 99 cases in the Boston area to the conference.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
A Biogen conference hosted in Boston in late February may be responsible for tens of thousands of coronavirus cases, a new study published online on Tuesday said.
The was held at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel on February 26 and 27, the Boston Globe reported.
The New York Times reported in April that senior executives from the drug company caught the virus and then traveled to other states, cities, and countries unknowingly carrying the virus.
"The smartest people in health care and drug development — and they were completely oblivious to the biggest thing that was about to shatter their world," John Carroll, editor of Endpoints News, told the Times.
At the time, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said 99 people who had either attended the conference or were in contact with someone who had, had tested positive for the virus in the state.
Biogen was criticized, at the time, for moving forward with the conference even though several officials attending were from European countries that already had documented coronavirus outbreaks.
The Times added that some of the first coronavirus cases in states like Indiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina were Biogen executives.
The study posted on Tuesday has yet to be peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. It also doesn't specifically refer to Biogen, referring to the conference as an "international business conference held in Boston."
"We're not trying to point fingers," Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen surveillance told the 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. It happened in a city that wasn't 'woke.' "
Researchers at the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the genome of 772 coronavirus samples from people in Boston from January and May.
More than a third of the samples collected were infected with a strain of the virus that could be traced to the conference.
From the 289 cases that could be traced to the conference, 122 of the samples were from people living and working in Boston-area homeless shelters, the study reported.
"I'm confident that the scale for measuring this event is in the tens of thousands," Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital told the Globe.
Caroline Buckee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health did not have anything to do with the study but told the Globe that the findings seem probable. She received a copy of the study before it appeared Tuesday on a preprint server.
"Super-spreading is really a key component of how we ended up with an epidemic of this gravity," Buckee said. "If you think about it, all the cases in the whole world originated from one case. That's the nature of the exponential growth of epidemics."
In an email statement, a Biogen spokesperson told Business Insider that they don't dispute the findings of the study, and have collaborated with the researchers.
"February 2020 was nearly a half year ago, and was a period when general knowledge about the coronavirus was limited. We were adhering closely to the prevailing official guidelines. We never would have knowingly put anyone at risk. 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," the company said.
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