Cluster of coronavirus cases is tied to US biotech meeting

BOSTON (AP) — A biotech meeting at a hotel in downtown Boston appears to be the source of a cluster of the coronavirus in the United States (US) — and a warning for employers who are still holding big gatherings as the outbreak spreads.

Seventy-seven of the 95 confirmed cases in Massachusetts have been linked to a meeting of executives with Biogen, a company based in Cambridge, next to Boston, that develops therapies for neurological diseases, state officials said.

An additional 12 people who have tested positive for the virus outside Massachusetts have been linked to the February 26-27 meeting, including five in North Carolina, two in Indiana, and one each in New Jersey, Tennessee and Washington, DC, officials said. Two tested positive in Europe, Biogen spokesman David Caouette said on Wednesday.

The Biogen cluster underscores the danger in continuing to host business gatherings as the virus, which has sickened tens of thousands of people since emerging in China in December 2019, spreads, said Harvard University Infectious Disease Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.

“We need to stop having meetings like that,” he said, noting a smaller cluster had been linked to a business conference at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore in January. “I think a lot of companies have concluded that on their own.” The Boston conference gathered roughly 175 company executives for two days of meetings at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel, a striking brick landmark on the city’s scenic harbourfront. State health officials said the company notified them of the potential outbreak on March 3 and that by March 6 they had publicly confirmed the cases as the type of coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.

The disease usually exhibits mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, but it can be worse in older adults and people with other health problems.

State and city health officials said on Wednesday they are working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify close contacts of the people with confirmed cases in order to monitor them.

But they declined to say whether any of those sickened from the conference have been hospitalised, or how many of those quarantined in Massachusetts are linked to the meeting.

Local officials also declined to say whether they were taking additional steps, such as additional sanitising or visitor restrictions at nearby landmarks, which include a ferry wharf, the New England Aquarium, and historic Faneuil Hall and its shopping and dining complex.

Several Biogen workers are “doing well”, CEO Michel Vounatsos told employees on Monday, while others are “fighting this novel virus and living in isolation from their families”.

“Knowing they are in pain, hurts each of us,” he wrote. “I am grateful for the courage our team has shown in this challenging time, working late into the night and in constant communication with public health partners.”