Biogen, academic medical institutions to create Covid-19 biobank

The company was the site of a large outbreak of the disease linked to a February management meeting. Employees who contracted and recovered from Covid-19, and those who had contact with them, are eligible to provide samples, which will be used to generate de-identified data.

The Marriott Long Wharf Hotel in Boston, site of a Biogen management meeting in February that sparked a major Covid-19 outbreak

A large Boston-area biotechnology company hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic is teaming up with local academic medical institutions to create a collection of biological samples that they hope will shed light on how the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects the human body and potentially lead to new ways to prevent and treat the disease.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Biogen said Thursday that it would work with Partners HealthCare and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University to form a consortium that will build a Covid-19 biobank. The idea is to have a source of de-identified data – coming initially from infected employees of the company and those who had contact with them, who are volunteering to provide blood samples – that the company said would advance knowledge of the disease and aid the search for vaccines and treatments.

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“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,” Biogen chief medical officer Maha Radhakrishnan said in a statement. “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.”

Biogen employees who contracted the virus and have recovered from Covid-19, as well as their close contacts – regardless of whether they were confirmed to have the disease – are eligible to participate. Partners HealthCare, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital will coordinate outreach and sample collection, while the Broad Institute will generate data from blood samples.

The biotech company was the site of a significant outbreak of the virus linked to a management meeting that took place at a hotel in Boston in February. Days later, executives from the company, not knowing they were infected, took part in a healthcare conference sponsored by the investment bank Cowen, spreading it further in the area’s biotechnology community and leading to executives like Kite Pharma founder Arie Belldegrun becoming infected as well. Other attendees of the management meeting also returned home to other states and countries, taking the virus with them. The New York Times reported Sunday that the company has faced criticism in hindsight for deciding to hold the meeting.

Still, Biogen said in its announcement Thursday, the biobank offers an opportunity to collect data from a clustered group of people who had common exposure and thus help to understand why some showed symptoms of the disease and others remained asymptomatic. Researchers will look at blood samples of those who have recovered to try and find neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, which may help the development of short- and long-term therapy options.

Biogen is also collaborating with Vir Biotechnology, a San Francisco-based company that is partnering with several larger firms to develop treatments for Covid-19. Vir’s CEO, George Scangos, was formerly CEO of Biogen.

Photo: Joseph Prezioso, AFP, via Getty Images