Former Biogen employee arrested in Beijing after hiding her coronavirus symptoms

Is it possible to commit a human rights violation simply by not asking the right questions?
A former Biogen employee has been arrested as Beijing prosecutors accuse her of hiding coronavirus symptoms to board a flight from the U.S. to China. (Getty Images/AndreyPopov)

A former Biogen employee in the U.S. has been officially arrested in Beijing after allegedly hiding her coronavirus symptoms to enter China.

The woman, a Chinese citizen surnamed Li—who was at the time identified as an associate director of biostatistics at Biogen—made headlines in mid-March and drew wide criticism on Chinese media after local authorities said she lied during a flight back to her home country.

After weeks of investigation, prosecutors in Beijing approved her arrest on Monday. She’s facing the charge of impairing the prevention of infectious disease, an offense that could result in prison time of less than three years or up to seven years if the court finds her actions had led to serious consequences.

At the core of the case was Li’s withholding of critical information of her health condition when strict quarantine measures were in place in China. According to the prosecutors, Li, 37, developed fever and other symptoms on March 1, days after the now-infamous Biogen meeting that made Boston the then-epicenter of Massachusetts’ COVID-19 outbreak.

Li didn’t attend the exec meeting herself, people familiar with the matter previously told FiercePharma. But some of her colleagues did and were later confirmed to have SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Li underwent a coronavirus RNA test on March 11, the prosecutors said, contradicting her previous claim that she’d been denied such a test three times in the U.S., according to Beijing health officials. But instead of waiting for the results, Li decided to leave Massachusetts with her husband and son. After a stopover in Los Angeles, the family boarded Air China flight CA988 to Beijing the next day.

RELATED: Biogen parts ways with employee who hid coronavirus symptoms and lied her way back to China

To get on the plane, Li allegedly took anti-fever drugs and told flight attendants she hadn’t taken any medicines and was traveling by herself. Only shortly before arrival did she admit the whole thing, local officials have said.

Li tested positive for the novel coronavirus in China on March 13 and her husband on March 16. Over 60 people had to be quarantined after the diagnoses, the prosecutors noted.

After the revelation of her story, Biogen quickly severed ties with her, stating that she “made the personal decision to travel to China without informing the company and ignoring the guidance of health experts.”

China has handed out several sentences to people who hid their coronavirus-related history. Earlier this week, a man was sentenced to one year in prison for the same offense as the accusation Li is now facing. The man and his wife drove home from Hubei province—the then-epicenter of China’s outbreak—in mid-January but told officials the man had arrived in early January, avoiding being put under close monitoring. That move led to the quarantine of 50 close contacts and the seal-off of the village after the man's wife was diagnosed.

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