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Far Spread

Biogen's February conference may have been a COVID-19 super-spreader event that led to 20,000 infections in the Boston area, the Boston Globe reports.

About 200 people attended the conference, which took place at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel, and it was one of the first outbreaks of COVID-19 in the US, it adds, noting that some 99 people were initially thought to have been infected in connection with the event. But a Broad Institute-led team has now sequenced and analyzed 772 complete SARS-CoV-2 genomes isolated from patients in the Boston area and tied about a third of those cases to the February meeting.

As they report in a preprint posted to MedRxiv, the Broad-led team found there were about 80 SARS-CoV-2 introductions into the Boston area, including two super-spreading events that had different outcomes. As the Globe notes, the biotech meeting sparked a wider outbreak that spread among Boston's homeless population and to other parts of the US and world, while another super-spreading event faded.

"We're not trying to point fingers," senior author Bronwyn MacInnis from the Broad tells the Globe. "Some [viral] introductions fizzle out, others light fires. The circumstances of this event ― the fact that it happened so early in the epidemic and the timing of where we were with COVID in the public consciousness ― meant it had a disproportionate effect."

In a statement, Biogen tells the Globe that it "never would have knowingly put anyone at risk. When we learned a number of our colleagues were ill, we did not know the cause was COVID-19, but we immediately notified public health authorities and took steps to limit the spread."