Biogen tells meeting attendees to quarantine themselves after 8 infected with coronavirus

UPDATE: The biotech company had earlier directed all meeting attendees to work from home, but is now mandating a quarantine as more infections have been linked to the meeting. Several healthcare conferences have also been affected by the worsening outbreak.

Biogen has told employees who attended a management meeting last week to stay in quarantine and avoid social contacts after eight attendees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the biotechnology company said in an emailed statement Friday.

In an update to a statement issued earlier, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm said it had ordered those employees who attended the meeting in Boston last week and who are showing symptoms of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus, to quarantine themselves and isolate themselves from people they live with until further notice while waiting for public health authorities to contact them. Close contacts must also be quarantined, the company said. Those who are not symptomatic were also asked to remain in quarantine, while those whom they live with should avoid social contact and work from home. Additionally, all office-based employees and contractors of the company working in Massachusetts, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and Baar, Switzerland, are being told to work from home.

The new mandate was issued after five additional employees tested positive with the virus in addition to the three who were initially reported to be infected.

“We recognize that this is a difficult situation for our colleagues and their loved ones,” the updated statement read. “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.”

The company is also restricting travel through the end of the month, it said.

The Boston Globe reported Thursday evening that the meeting included 175 attendees. The Tennessee Department of Health released a statement Thursday stating that a man who had traveled between Nashville and Boston was the state’s first case of SARS-CoV-2, and the Globe reported that he was believed to have attended the Biogen meeting.

As of Thursday, the number of people infected around the globe stood at 95,333, with 3,282 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., there were 99 cases and 10 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several companies have begun telling employees to work from home in order to stem the spread of the virus. And on Thursday, HIMSS – a massive health technology conference set to take place in Orlando, Florida, whose attendance last year exceeded 42,500 – was canceled.

A major HIV/AIDS-focused conference that had been set to kick off Sunday in Boston, the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, will go virtual.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network said Thursday that its meeting in Orlando, scheduled for later this month, would be postponed. Some cancer centers and academic institutions have moved to restrict business travel, with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center saying Wednesday it would cancel all domestic and international business travel. In response, the American Association for Cancer Research said it still plans to hold its annual meeting next month in San Diego, but that the travel restrictions would prevent several people from attending.

The two biggest lab testing companies in the country, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, said Thursday that they would begin offering testing services for the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, the state governments of New York, California and Washington have passed measures requiring insurance companies to cover costs of care related to COVID-19 testing. Washington, particularly the Seattle area, has emerged as a hot spot for the virus, with a nursing home in the suburb of Kirkland experiencing several deaths.

The Trump administration has been widely criticized for its response to the outbreak, with the CDC only lifting restrictions on testing Tuesday and President Trump himself making several controversial public statements, such as saying that people who have the virus can go to work and contradicting the fatality rate estimated by the WHO.

UPDATE: This story has been updated from a previous version, which reported that Biogen had ordered meeting attendees to work from home. Attendees are now being directed to quarantine themselves and avoid social contacts, while employees of three of Biogen’s offices are being ordered to work from home, after the number of people fond to be infected rose from three to eight.

Photo: John Tlumacki, The Boston Globe, via Getty Images