A Biogen employee who allegedly concealed her coronavirus symptoms on a flight back to China may face criminal charges. But first, the biotech has decided it wants nothing to do with the rogue staffer.
“She is no longer an employee of Biogen,” a company spokesperson told FiercePharma Thursday. According to Biogen, the former employee, a woman surnamed Li, ignored health experts’ guidance and “made the personal decision to travel to China without informing the company.”
The company further distanced itself from Li in a Chinese version of the statement. “Her personal actions are inconsistent with Biogen’s values,” the company wrote on its official Weibo account on Friday.
Chinese authorities unveiled Li’s case a few days ago. According to them, during a flight from Los Angeles to Beijing on March 12, Li first told flight attendants she hadn't taken any medicines and was traveling alone. But two hours before landing, she admitted having taken fever-fighting drugs and acknowledged her husband and son were also onboard the flight.
Li and her husband have since tested positive for the novel coronavirus in China. According to Chinese officials, Li said she had already developed symptoms consistent with SARS-CoV-2 infection before boarding the flight and a chest scan on March 11 showed signs of lung infection. She left for China after she was denied diagnostic testing three times in the U.S., she said.
However, people at Biogen familiar with her situation told FiercePharma that Li was already tested for SARS-CoV-2 in early March at Massachusetts General Hospital, but she left the U.S. before the results were out.
Li told local authorities she attended the ill-fated Biogen management meeting at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel in Boston on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27, which as of Thursday has been linked to 97 COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and multiple cases in other states. But the people at Biogen said Li did not attend the meeting because it wasn't an event for her.
The thing is, in a statement on March 9, Biogen said it had already informed employees who attended the meeting and were symptomatic that “they will be contacted by the public health authorities to be tested and they must quarantine themselves.” That instruction came days before Li’s trip back to China.
Since Li’s case went public, her alleged behavior has attracted wide criticism in China. “It’s not your fault to have contracted the virus. But by lying about it, you put other fellow travelers at risk of infection; and for that, you should bear the consequences,” one person said in a comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like forum.
Beijing police have launched an investigation into whether Li’s actions constitute a criminal offense for obstructing the prevention of infectious disease. If convicted, she could face prison time of less than three years or up to seven years if there were serious consequences.
Biogen’s additional comment in its Chinese statement reflects the PR pressure multinational companies face when rogue employees undermine China’s efforts to battle an increasing number of imported coronavirus cases.
Earlier this week, Bayer also fired a Chinese-Australian employee after videos surfaced on the internet showing she defied a 14-day quarantine rule for all international travelers who arrive in Beijing. As a result, the woman’s work permit has been revoked and is asked to leave the country.