This Cambridge drug company inadvertently spread the coronavirus. Now, it’s creating a ‘biobank’ to hopefully treat the disease

“We are uniquely positioned to contribute to advancing COVID-19 science in an organized and deliberate way so we can all gain a better understanding of this virus.

People walk past the Biogen Inc., headquarters, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
People walk past the Biogen headquarters in Cambridge. –Steven Senne / AP

Biogen was the subject of early, unwanted notoriety in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

Its late-February leadership conference at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel was not only connected to the vast majority of early COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, but also contributed to the spread of the disease in a handful of other states — and countries — as the firm’s executives unwittingly fanned out across the globe before they realized the gravity of their symptoms. The New York Times subsequently gave Biogen the unenviable label of virus “super spreader” in a front-page article last month.

Now, the Cambridge-based drug company is hoping to use its “unique” position to help hasten the end of the pandemic.

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In a press release last week, Biogen announced a partnership with the Broad Institute and Partners HealthCare to create a COVID-19 biobank using blood samples from its employees and their close contacts to advance research into the disease.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a very direct, very personal impact on our Biogen community,” Maha Radhakrishnan, the chief medical officer at Biogen, said in a statement. “We are uniquely positioned to contribute to advancing COVID-19 science in an organized and deliberate way so we can all gain a better understanding of this virus.”

State officials have identified 99 cases in Massachusetts directly connected to the Biogen conference, though the true number is much higher. As the Times reported, the first cases in Indiana and Tennessee were Biogen employees, as were six of the earliest infections in North Carolina. According to the company, all of the people included in the official count of cases linked to the conference have recovered, though it’s unclear if any deaths resulted from the downstream spread.

“We still do not know the origin of the outbreak at the meeting, and we will not speculate about it,” Biogen spokeswoman Anna Robinson told the Boston Herald. “What happened at the meeting demonstrates what is now clear to everyone about the speed with which this disease spreads.”

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The company says that creating a large collection of anonymized medical data will help further knowledge of COVID-19.

Blood samples will be collected on a volunteer basis from the group of recovered employees, family members, and close contacts.

Researchers say the “unique, clustered group of patients with a common exposure will offer a valuable lens into why some people show signs of disease and others are asymptomatic,” as well as why some have more severe symptoms. The samples will also be examined to “to evaluate the levels of neutralizing antibodies,” which may illuminate the pathway toward short-term therapeutic treatments or even a vaccine.

“Through a shared biobank, researchers will be able to identify new patterns and drastically expand our knowledge of a disease,” said Eric Lander, the president and founding director of the Broad Institute, which is backed by MIT and Harvard.

Partners HealthCare, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital are coordinating the outreach and sample collection effort. The samples will also be de-identified by the Broad Institute.

The biobank, which will be accessible to greater scientific community, will also store frozen samples in the hopes of  informing future research. Biogen says it will will have the same level of access to the biobank as researchers around the world, meaning the biotech firm will have not have access to identifiable information, nor will it know which employees and close contacts volunteered to participate.

The company didn’t immediately say how many people had volunteered to participate.

“Many Biogen colleagues have been eager to find ways to help others during this pandemic, and it is our hope that this biobank will provide hope and essential information during this difficult time,” Radhakrishnan said.

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