Earlier this year, Biogen employees unwittingly spread coronavirus across five states, the District of Columbia, and three countries. Senior executives were exposed to the virus while attending the company’s annual leadership meeting in Boston in late February, and proceeded to travel home, many out of state.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health put out an official count of 99 patients who fell ill with the virus, including Biogen employees and their contacts, but this number only includes Massachusetts residents.
Although it was already widespread in China at the time of the conference, COVID-19 had not yet been declared a worldwide pandemic. There were only 30 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of the Friday before the meeting, according to data compiled by The New York Times. However, Biogen leaders from European countries that were already affected by the virus also traveled to attend.
In the week following the leadership summit, Biogen management sent internal emails acknowledging that some employees were sick and urging anyone experiencing symptoms to see a health-care provider. During that time, however, several high-level company executives continued to attend meetings and health-care events.
Many executives who attended the Biogen conference later tested positive for the virus, including 2 attendees who returned home to Germany and Switzerland. The first 2 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Indiana were Biogen executives, as was the first known case in Tennessee and 6 of the earliest cases in North Carolina.
The Biogen meeting was one early example in the U.S. of a “superspreading event” of COVID-19, where a small gathering of people triggers a huge number of infections.
Biogen defended its management of the event and aftermath, saying leadership made the best decisions possible with the information available at the time. The company has since donated $10 million to expand coronavirus testing and provide emergency supplies for hospital workers affected by the pandemic.