New Emails Show Fear, Confusion Around Biogen Superspreader Conference
A multi-day conference hosted by Biogen that occurred during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has been determined to be a super-spreader event, with more than 300,000 infections linked to the conference.
A newly released batch of emails exchanged between the company and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health sheds more light on growing concern about the overall impact of the conference during those first few weeks of the pandemic.
According to The Boston Business Journal, officials with the commonwealth’s Department of Public Health acknowledged the potential spread of the virus as conference attendees returned to their families and friends. The officials began to worry after reports of COVID-19 started to appear in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, far from Boston. There was no immediately known origin for that spread, but it was soon linked to the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel conference.
An email to colleagues sent by Larry Madoff, medical director of the DPH's Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, noted the likelihood of community spread due to the conference.
“With so many Biogen cases and now secondary cases in families, many of whom had contact in the community, it seems virtually impossible that there wouldn’t be community spread,” Madoff wrote on March 9.
DPH emails showed an increasing fear as the numbers continued to escalate. Staffers and even physicians referred Biogen employees to their chief medical officer for testing, as they believed at the time the company had the capabilities to test for the virus. The emails also show that some physicians refused to see Biogen employees in those early days.
“My (health care provider) said I’m the 3rd Biogen person to call her this morning. My HCP is saying I’m not supposed to contaminate local hospitals in [redacted]. The last communication from Biogen was if I go to MGH I will be escorted out by hospital police,” one Biogen employee wrote in an email, according to the report.
From another employee: “Most (primary care physicians) are refusing outright seeing Biogen employees. PCPs and MDPH are sending them all to Biogen to 'coordinate getting them tested.' This is extremely concerning to us and employees feel that they are falling through the cracks with no one to go to seek care.”
The situation, as the Journal put it, was “out of control.”
The number of cases associated with the conference started small but quickly grew. It was initially reported that three Biogen employees who attended that meeting had tested positive for the virus.
Two of the employees came to the United States from the European Union, and the other was from Tennessee. Those numbers soon grew to 15, then were traced to about 100 cases of COVID-19 across the country. From there, the numbers grew exponentially. In August 2020, research suggested the Biogen meeting contributed to more than 20,000 different cases in four Massachusetts counties alone. Then, in December, the number hit 300,000.
The conference was held in the early days of the outbreak, even before most people knew of the dangers of the virus and certainly before mask-wearing and social distancing were recommended. Participants in the Biogen conference came from all over the world. After exposure to the virus at the convention, employees boarded airplanes and returned to their homes. Many of those unknowingly carried the novel coronavirus with them.
Biogen worked with health officials to put together a list of employees who attended the conference to support contact tracing efforts.
One year later, the landscape is different. But, these emails not only show the confusion around COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic but also the fear associated – even within the health care community.