A superspreader event in the US at the beginning of the pandemic is being linked to as many as 300,000 coronavirus cases, with the strain even spreading to Australia.
While Biotechnology company Biogen’s medical conference in Boston on February 26 and 27 was initially believed to have infected 99 people, an in-depth analysis published in the journal Science has found the virus ripped through Boston and spread around the globe.
The emergence of the virus in the US prompted some companies to cancel international events, however Biogen pushed on and welcomed guests to the Marriott Hotel from multiple countries.
“The irony, of course, is that a large drug company was responsible for triggering the mother of all superspreader events that played a major role in making the virus endemic in the US, killing more than 3000 Americans a day,” editor of biotech publication Endpoint News John Carroll told The New York Times.
“Top Biogen execs accidentally triggered a massive health care train wreck, and watched it play out from the sidelines.”
Infectious disease expert and researcher Dr Jacob Lemieux, who was one of more than 50 researchers involved in the analysis, believes the new strain mutated around early or mid-February and arrived via a single importation into Boston.
Following the conference, the strain then spread rapidly throughout the city and affected multiple homeless shelters.
It then made its way around the nation, particularly in Florida, while it was also traced in Europe and Australia, the analysis says.
Biogen has previously defended hosting the event, saying it was held after careful consideration of the information at hand at the time.
In a statement to Yahoo News Australia, Biogen said it understood the value of the data that has since been collated since the first wave of infection.
“We hope that information gleaned from these data will help continue to drive a better understanding of the transmission of this virus and efforts to address it,” the statement read.
The analysis only accounts for cases up to October, with the US enduring a surge in cases since, meaning the number of cases linked to the conference could be far greater than indicated in the analysis.
Vaccine hope as cases continue to soar
While the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 2283 further deaths on Sunday (local time), there was a sense of hope in the US as the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines were dispatched.
Mask-wearing workers at a Pfizer Inc factory in Michigan began packing the first shipments of the vaccine developed with German partner BioNTech SE in dry ice early Sunday morning.
US hospitals are preparing for the first shots to go into arms on Monday, but it will take months before most Americans can get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes are first in line to receive the inoculations of a two-dose regimen given about three weeks apart.
More than 100 million people, or about 30 per cent of the US population, could be immunised by the end of March, US Operation Warp Speed chief adviser Dr Moncef Slaoui said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
The long-awaited moment comes as the US death toll was approaching 300,000 and infections and hospitalisations set daily records.
Some models project that deaths could reach 500,000 before vaccines become widely available in the spring and summer.
Dr Slaoui said the United States hopes to have about 40 million vaccine doses – enough for 20 million people - distributed by the end of December.
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