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This one gathering likely spread the coronavirus to 20,000 people

Published Aug 26th, 2020 2:29PM EDT
Coronavirus Transmission Rate
Image: sergo321/Adobe

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  • The coronavirus transmission rate remains high even though many people are following safety guidelines that include face mask-wearing, social distancing, and good hand hygiene.
  • A new study further proves why those measures are required, detailing a “superspreading” event in Boston from late February that led to the infection of tens of thousands of people across the US and around the world.
  • Nearly 100 people who attended a business event developed COVID-19 and spread the virus to others. At the time, safety measures were not advised or enforced.

The rate at which the novel coronavirus spreads remains high in the US and other countries, even though there have been positive developments in the past few weeks. The world still had nearly 6.9 million active cases of COVID-19 out of more than 24.1 million positive diagnoses as of Wednesday morning. About 830,000 people have died around the world of COVID-19 complications so far, including more than 182,000 Americans. The US has the highest death toll and the highest number of recorded cases, closing in on 6 million total COVID-19 confirmations. More than 2.5 million of those remain active, with the illness spreading at a rate of more than 40,000 confirmed cases per day. And that’s just the people who get tested.

The virus is spreading so fast because people in some communities do not resect the simple guidelines officials have been advising for months now. The use of face masks combined with social distancing and good hand hygiene can help reduce the spread of the virus, yet some people still don’t believe that something as simple as a mask is helpful. Those people often end up paying the price.

We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that proves how efficiently this virus spreads from studies and anecdotes that detail how a single person infected dozens of other people. It happened over and over in the early days of the pandemic, and it keeps happening now — like the story we told you about earlier this week where one woman infected 56 others at a Starbucks. The latest paper says that as few as 90 people who were not observing any sort of safety guidelines during an event in late February turned out to be superspreaders who may have infected as many as 20,000 people.

Researchers studied the COVID-19 transmission in the Boston area at the beginning of the pandemic by sequencing the genome of several patients to determine how the illness circulated in the region. The findings were published in pre-print format on medRxiv, which means others haven’t yet reviewed the study.

The researchers explain that 200 people attended a biotech conference in late February. More than 90 participants later tested positive, and the event is now known to be a significant source of COVID-19 transmission in the early days of the pandemic. The scientists sequenced the viral genome from 28 people who attended the business conference. They were then able to follow a particular strain of the virus that reached several US states (Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas) and other countries (France, Sweden, Slovakia, and Australia).

The paper doesn’t mention the number of people who may have been infected as a result, but it does say that cases in various other states and countries could be linked back to the Boston event. Bronwyn MacInnis told CNN that the conference was a “perfect storm,” and the superspreading event could be connected to approximately 20,000 cases. Many factors made the conference an unfortunate perfect storm. “That the virus was introduced at the conference at all was unlucky,” MacInnis said, noting that his estimate isn’t exact, but “does communicate the scale.”

“If tens of thousands of individuals seems large, it is important to point out that it is in context of a pandemic that has infected tens of millions of people,” she added

This all happened between February 26th and 27th, at a time when President Trump was downplaying the threat of COVID-19. He didn’t declare a national emergency until a couple of weeks later.

“When it happened was critical: it was scheduled just as we were collectively beginning to appreciate the imminent threat of COVID at home–if it had been a week later the event likely would have been canceled,” MacInnis said, adding that the virus had a chance to spread widely “before extensive testing capacity, shutdowns, social distancing, and masking were in place.”

She added, “The other critical factor was the population the virus landed in: people who had come from many different places (including some where COVID was already circulating), and who then returned home, often unknowingly bringing the virus with them.”

It was The Boston Globe that identified the event as the international meeting of leaders from the biotechnology company Biogen, which was hosted at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel.

The company acknowledged the event and said the meeting took place at a time when the general knowledge about the virus was limited. “We were adhering closely to the prevailing official guidelines,” Biogen told CNN. “We 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.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said at a news conference that he had long seen the Biogen conference as a “seminal event” and that he was criticized for saying that a few months before the study was published. “This is no offense to anybody, but at that point in time, nobody was wearing masks, nobody was social distancing, nobody was even behaving with concern about the presence of the virus at all. I mean all rules of the game with respect to that have changed,” Baker said. “It speaks to the power of that virus to move from one person to another to another.”

It’s unlikely that a similar superspreading event can occur right now, given that most large in-person events have been canceled for the foreseeable future. The same study also highlighted COVID-19 transmission in different areas in Boston, including a nursing home and a homeless shelter. The full study is available at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.