Editor's note: This story was updated Wednesday morning, March 11, with new developments.
A Biogen management meeting held in Boston in late February is at the center of Massachusetts’ outbreak of the novel coronavirus—and adding to case counts far beyond.
After the drugmaker last week confirmed three employees who traveled to Boston for the meeting had COVID-19 infections, the number swelled significantly over the weekend and early this week. Including those original three, the meeting is now linked to about 80 cases.
As of Tuesday, 70 cases in Massachusetts itself were tied to the meeting, the Massachusetts Department of Health reports. That’s out of 92 confirmed or presumptive cases in the state.
Two others have cropped up in Indiana. Another Biogen employee from Pennsylvania traveled to Palm Beach, Florida, for the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis conference and later tested positive for COVID-19. The person worked the Biogen booth at the meeting, according to WPTV, but it's not clear whether the employee also attended the Boston gathering.
In North Carolina, authorities have outlined 5 more presumptive cases, all Biogen meeting attendees, WLOS reports. A child of one attendee in Boston has also tested positive, according to the Boston Globe.
One of the management meeting attendees who later tested positive participated in the Cowen & Co. investment conference, held in Boston on the heels of the Biogen management confab, the company told Endpoints. Cowen said it was in touch with public health authorities to make sure "appropriate parties are tested."
In a report late Tuesday, The Boston Globe laid out some behind-the-scenes details of the situation. Following the meeting, on March 3, some executives who attended and felt ill sought testing at Massachusetts General Hospital or their doctors but were turned away, according to the Globe report. That’s because federal testing guidelines at the time stated that only those with symptoms, plus travel to affected areas, were eligible for tests.
Biogen itself reached out to Massachusetts health authorities to report about 50 attendees with flu-like symptoms but still couldn’t secure tests, the Globe reports.
Ahead of the meeting, there wasn’t a discussion about cancelling, at least as far as one spokesman had heard. He told the Globe that “at the time of the meeting, we were absolutely following national guidance on travel and in-person meetings.”
Now, Biogen has instructed meeting attendees that they’ll be contacted by authorities for testing. They must quarantine themselves and not come in contact with family, loved ones or roommates for the time being. Those people must also quarantine themselves.
Biogen has instructed employees and contractors in Massachusetts, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina and Baar, Switzerland to work from home “until further notice.”
A Biogen spokeswoman said the company recognizes “that this is a difficult situation for our colleagues and their loved ones.”
“We are actively working with all relevant departments of public health and hospitals to prioritize the well-being of the people who may have been exposed to COVID-19,” she added.
Takeda, which has 5,000 employees in Massachusetts, has instructed most of its staff in the state to work from home as well, WCTV reports. Those who can’t, such as lab scientists, are encouraged to keep a distance from one another and limit meetings to under 10 people.
Biogen and Takeda aren’t alone, of course. Many of the biopharma industry’s top companies are cracking down on travel and encouraging employees to work from home amid the global outbreak.
Amgen is suspending international business travel and medical conference attendance until April 17. GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Roche, Bristol Myers Squibb, Mylan and others are taking steps to prevent the spread of infections, as well.
The moves come as the novel coronavirus outbreak enters a more global phase. As of Sunday, the World Health Organization reported 105,586 cases worldwide, with 80,859 of those in China. There were 3,610 new cases outside of China in the last 24 hours, and the outbreak has made its way to 101 countries.
As of Monday in the U.S., officials have diagnosed more than 500 cases, with 22 deaths linked to the outbreak, according to the New York Times.
Editor's note: This story was updated with Monday and Tuesday developments in Massachusetts and North Carolina.