Last winter’s Biogen conference in Boston appears to have triggered a globetrotting COVID-19 superspreader that infected an estimated 300,000 people, a scientific study states.
The Feb. 26-27 meeting of managers held at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel sent 100 attendees home with the coronavirus who then spread it to 29 states and other countries, the study posted in the journal Science reports.
In all, Biogen’s two-day brainstorming session is tied to an estimated 1.6% of all coronavirus infections in the U.S., the study states.
The report — posted Thursday — paints a chilling portrait of a contagion that raced out of Boston and across Massachusetts never looking back. It also illustrates how ignorant even bio-tech leaders were of the novel coronavirus less than a year ago.
The scientific report, complete with charts and data, is a whodunit of an invisible strain of SARS-CoV-2 that researchers said resulted in the virus spreading to Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Australia, Sweden, and Slovakia.
“Genome data reveal that the impact of the conference was far larger than the approximately 100 cases directly associated with the event,” the paper states.
“Using state-reported case counts, we estimate that by the end of the study period, approximately 50,000 diagnosed cases in the US resulted from conference-associated viruses; of these, 46% were in Massachusetts,” the report states. That included cases in Everett, Revere and Chelsea.
Here’s where the journal adds up the total damage: “Through November 1, 2020, we estimate that a total of 245,000 cases marked by (one strain) and 88,000 cases marked by (another strain) were linked to the conference in the United States. While Massachusetts accounted for most early spread related to the conference, Florida accounted for the greatest proportion of cases overall — 29.2%.”
Two genetic signatures tied to the managers’ meeting put on by the Cambridge-based Biogen provided researchers with “markers to track the onward spread of SARS-CoV-2 from the event.”
The study was done to help understand the role of “superspreading events in transmission” for “prioritizing public health interventions,” the authors write.
The “cluster” of Biogen cases, the report adds, showed the “effect of this spread was long-lasting. By November 1, 2020, viruses containing (one cluster) could be found in 29 states.”
The researchers of this report — more than 50 named — include some from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. The institute is helping Massachusetts research COVID-19 to understand the nearly unstoppable contagious capacity of the virus. Harvard and most of Boston’s major hospitals are also represented in the bylines.
“Better understanding of transmission dynamics could contribute to more targeted and effective responses to the pandemic,” the authors write.
They add: “Reports of COVID-19 transmission have featured clusters of cases linked to gatherings, including ones in workplaces and churches, and especially in close living environments such as care homes and homeless shelters. These clusters are thought to often involve superspreading, in which one individual infects many others, yet the contribution of these events to regional and national transmission is not well understood.”
The Biogen conference sparked a rush of employees seeking testing at a nearby hospital days later and forced the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel to close soon after. The Biogen pool of those infected is now coveted data that was used in this Science report.
In April, Biogen announced it was helping in the research.
“We are uniquely positioned to contribute to advancing COVID-19 science in an organized and deliberate way so we can all gain a better understanding of this virus,” Biogen’s chief medical officer Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan said in a release announcing the project in April.
As of Thursday, there have been 1.58 million deaths due to the virus worldwide and 69.5 million infections, according to the Johns Hopkins University virus tracker. Out of those infections, 292,000 people have died in the U.S.; 15.6 million have been infected.
In Massachusetts, 10,963 people have died as of Thursday and 264,454 have been infected.
Back in February, the Biogen managers mixing at the Long Wharf all day over meals and meetings had no idea someone sick in the room would help light a fire that has yet to be put out. They shared eggs early and drinks late, all as an uninvited guest tainted the whole affair.
The study also examined other Massachusetts clusters at a skilled nursing facility in Wilmington, where 28 died; homeless shelters affiliated with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program — where some cases were tied to the Biogen outbreak; and at Massachusetts General Hospital.
A takeaway, the researchers state, is the potency of the virus is full blown early on when the traveling public is unaware of the virus bomb they are carrying.
“In summary,” the authors warn, “this study provides clear evidence that superspreading events may profoundly alter the course of an epidemic and implies that prevention, detection, and mitigation of such events should be a priority for public health efforts.”
If you were infected at the Biogen conference, email email@example.com.