Biogen conference may have led to 20,000 COVID-19 infections, researchers say

A conference held by Cambridge, Mass.-based drugmaker Biogen in a Boston hotel in February may have led to about 20,000 cases of COVID-19 by early May, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the Broad Institute in Cambridge. 

The study, which involved more than 50 researchers and that has yet to be peer-reviewed for publication, looked at the genome of the virus in 772 patients in four Massachusetts counties. Of those patients, 289 of them had their infections traced back to the meeting held Feb. 26 and Feb. 27 at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston. 

By multiplying the proportion of conference-related genomes by the total number of COVID-19 infections in the four counties, the scientists estimated that 20,000 infections could be linked to the Marriott event, which involved about 175 people from the U.S. and overseas. 

Of the 289 patients whose virus was traced back to the Biogen event, 122 lived or worked in Boston area homeless shelters, according to The Boston Globe. 

The version of the virus found in the 289 patients was one of more than 80 found in the state between late January and early May. 

The study, which also involved Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, never mentions Biogen by name, but refers to an "international business conference held in Boston from Feb. 26-27." One researcher told the Globe they weren't trying to "point fingers."

Biogen told the Globe that the outbreak from the meeting happened nearly six months ago, when understanding of COVID-19 was limited, though the drugmaker didn't distpute the study or the estimate of 20,000 cases stemming from the conference. 

"We never would have knowingly put anyone at risk," Biogen told the Globe. "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 researchers emphasized the 20,000 people estimate is a "back-of-the-envelope calculation," the Globe reported. The actual number could be higher because the researchers didn't look outside the four counties. It's also possible the version of the virus they believe stemmed from the conference had spread somewhere else beforehand and then infected people at the Marriott, but the researchers said they saw no evidence to support that. 

Read the full article here.

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