BOSTON — A biotech meeting at a hotel in downtown Boston appears to be the source of a cluster of the novel coronavirus in the city and other parts of the country.
The Boston conference gathered roughly 175 company executives for two days of meetings.
State health officials say the company notified them of the potential outbreak March 3 and that by March 6 they had publicly confirmed the cases as the type of coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
Hotel guests staying at the Marriott Long Wharf were given notices the hotel was shutting down and they would be helping guests relocate to other hotels or change their travel plans. Guests arriving on Thursday were surprised to learn they no longer had a place to stay.
“I don’t know why they are closed do you know why they are closed?" said a guest arriving from out of state. “We flew here from Iowa, now we don’t know where we’re staying.”
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 Feb. 26-27 meeting, including five in North Carolina, two in Indiana, and one each in New Jersey, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., officials said. Two tested positive in Europe, Biogen spokesman David Caouette said 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, spreads, said Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University infectious disease epidemiologist.
“A whole hotel that does seem like a lot, but caution is caution," said Sheri Tomasello, who is visiting from Chicago.
A hotel spokesman says the drastic measure is in response to “new information” but what that means for employees and hotel guests who have stayed at the hotel over the last two weeks remains unclear.
“They need to get it resolved as quickly as possible,” said Mary Ann McCarthy, who works near the hotel. “We haven’t heard anything about staff members coming down with the virus, are they not telling us or did they not get the virus?”
Health officials continue to investigate to find out just how the two-day meeting resulted in so many infections.
Several Biogen workers are “doing well,” CEO Michel Vounatsos told employees Monday, while others are "fighting this novel virus and living in isolation from their families.”
The company, which has about 7,500 employees globally, said Friday it has asked employees who attended the meeting to quarantine themselves. It has also directed office-based workers in Massachusetts; Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; and Baar, Switzerland, to work from home, though manufacturing activities are continuing, Caouette said.
Several Biogen employees who tested positive attended at least one other conference downtown, but there have so far been no cases reported among those participants, Daniel Gagnier, a spokesman for Cowen, the New York-based investment bank that hosted the event, said Wednesday.
The Cowen event took place March 2-4 at the Marriott Copley Place in the Back Bay.
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