WBUR – Boston:
A Biogen conference, now that’s ironic.
Early in the pandemic, state health officials counted 99 coronavirus cases stemming from a fateful Biogen meeting that turned into a superspreading event. Now, new genetic evidence suggests the infections unleashed at the Cambridge biotech company’s gathering in February washed through the Boston area and rippled across the world.
Overall, the data suggests the event led to 40% of all COVID-19 infections in the Boston area as of July 1, says Bronwyn MacInnis, a viral genomicist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the senior author of a new, pre-publication study that attempts to trace the viral descendants of that outbreak. That translates to tens of thousands of cases.
“It seems pretty clear that the spread that initiated in the context of the conference went beyond certainly that event and beyond the city and reached populations across the U.S. and in various corners of the world,” she says.
When MacInnis looked at virus sequences her colleagues had uploaded to a shared scientific database, roughly 3% of coronavirus genomes sequenced across the country — and 1.6% worldwide — bore the same distinctive genetic markers as those coming out of the Biogen conference.
“It’s fair to say it’s striking. [The conference] certainly has had an impact on the trajectory of the pandemic domestically and abroad,” MacInnis says. “It’s a great example of how connected we all are, and how viruses are agnostic to how they move and who they may infect. The activities that happen in one corner of a society can have far-reaching effects on others.”
In particular, the study, just posted on the online research repository MedRxiv, documents the spread of the virus from biotech executives to people experiencing homelessness in Boston.
“It took just a few weeks before this virus essentially made its way from this international business conference into this very vulnerable population,” says Dr. Jessie Gaeta, chief medical officer of the nonprofit Boston Healthcare For The Homeless, who worked on the study.
The researchers found the coronavirus entered Boston’s homeless population seven separate times. At least two of those infections seem to have come directly from someone infected at or just after the conference. Gaeta says how exactly that happened is something that she’s pondered a lot.
“I wondered if someone staying in a shelter might have actually worked in the hotel where the conference was hosted, for example,” Gaeta says. “Or are there staff who work in the shelter who had some other interaction with the conference attendees?”