This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
Boston biotech conference likely infected hundreds of thousands of people.
When historians look back on 2020, I expect they’ll be puzzled by the nonchalant, non-serious response to the COVID-19 virus early on. Most governments stood passively by, allowing the virus to hop aboard international flights and spread everywhere in a matter of weeks. Medical bureaucrats insisted the real battle was against paranoia, misinformation and racial stigma. In other words, the public sector failed us.
But private actors also failed. A prime example is the corporate leadership conference held in a Boston hotel on February 26 and 27 – a year ago this week. Biogen, which is headquartered nearby, calls itself “one of the world’s first global biotechnology companies.” It describes its personnel as “pioneers in neuroscience.”
These are educated, scientifically literate people. Yet the Boston Globe reports that those who attended that conference crowded into elevators, tasted each other’s drinks at a local bar, and “handed tongs and serving spoons back and forth at every buffet meal.”
If any sector of society might have taken early precautions, on its own initiative, rather than sleeping walking into disaster while governments dithered, surely this was it. But that didn’t happen, and a year later Massachusetts has the third-highest deaths-per-million rate in the US.
A study published in Science this month (online here, PDF here), says the Biogen conference was responsible for the “first large cluster” of cases in the Boston area. Soon afterward, “extensive regional, national, and international spread” followed. Infections linked to this conference were even identified at Boston homeless shelters.
Approximately 100 conference attendees contracted the virus. These people then exported it to “at least 18 U.S. states as well as to other countries, including Australia, Sweden, and Slovakia.” The authors of this research say the conference triggered 50,000 US infections (up until the end of May 2020). They further estimate that conference-linked cases grew to 245,000 in the US alone by the end of October.
In their words:
Because SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating at the conference happened to be marked by distinct genomic signatures, we were able to track its downstream effects far beyond the superspreading event itself, tracing the descendants of the virus…as they spread throughout the United States and the world, likely causing hundreds of thousands of cases. [bold added]
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